The police whistle doesn’t see as much use as it once did. Nowadays, officers use it mainly to assist in directing traffic. But before the adoption of 2-way radios, police relied on their whistles to command perpetrators to halt, to sound an alarm and to summon backup. It was perhaps their most important piece of equipment.

The police whistle first came into use about 130 years ago at the end of the industrial revolution. Just imagine a hapless police officer in the 19th century walking his beat in a rapidly expanding city like London or New York without so much as a whistle to command attention! If he should observe a crime in progress, the standard operating procedure of the day was to reach into his coat pocket and pull out his rattle—yes, his rattle—and spin it in the hopes of attracting attention by the distinctive clicking noise of the ratchet.

Or consider the world of professional sports, such as it was, in the days before the whistle. If an official needed to stop play and make note of a penalty, all he could do is throw a flag and hope it got noticed before play continued much further. Clearly the world was in desperate need of a better way.

Enter a British tinkerer named Joseph Hudson. Hudson is credited with inventing the modern police whistle. According to legend, Hudson was puzzling over the problem of engineering a whistle that was capable of attracting attention. One evening he distractedly laid down his violin on a table in such a way that it fell to the floor and shattered. The discordant sound the instrument made when it blew apart gave Hudson the inspiration for his whistle: two dissonant tones would be more audible for longer distances than a single, pure whistle tone. A short time later, his police whistle featuring two sound chambers and a hands-free mouthpiece was adopted by police forces all over England and the U.S.

But Mr. Hudson wasn’t done revolutionizing the whistle world. A few years after this, he would unveil the “Acme Thunderer.” This is the familiar whistle favored by coaches, referees and drill sergeants for the last century contain a loose “pea” inside the chamber. The presence of the pea tumbling inside the chamber accounts for the high volume blast that this device is capable of.

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