Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Choo Choo Trains

On my way into Manchester this morning - basking in the luxuary of a 142 ('Pacer') DMU - a mother and her twin, very excited, 4 year old daughters were making the same journey to visit MOSI. Every time they saw another train, all three mimed the act of pulling a whistle chain and loudly "Choo-Chooed". This, in itself, reminds us of the potency of the Steam Locomotive - but trains in Britain have not got "Choo Choo" since 1968 - but yet it remains the "classic sound" of a train. But... 'twas not always thus ...

Organ Pipes and Locomotives ...


 The fictional Ivor the Engine (created by Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate), famously has organ pipes The very first railway locomotives such as 'Planet' had no "Means of Audible Warning" other than a  instead of a traditional steam whistle; and sometimes the truth is far stranger than fiction.


 The earliest locomotives  had no "Means of Audible Warning", other than a bugle or hunting horn blown by the Fireman to warn of their approach. The steam whistle - that iconic sound of the age of steam - had not yet been invented.

How could an improved means of "Audible Warning" be developed and increase safety on the railways? The answer comes from an unlikely source  - William Hill of London, a Pipe Organ Builder. Born in Lincolnshire in 1879 and by the  1830s was one of the leading Organ Builders in Britain having taken prestigious commissions for York Minster and the Royal Panopticon of the Sciences. His greatest triumph was Birmingham Town Hall (1834).

William Hill (1789-1870) in old age c.1865

Hill was instrumental (pun intended) in developing the "Steam Trumpet". The Musical World reported in 1837:

"Mr. Hill has designed, for the newly-formed Railroads in Birmingham ... an instrument, which ... the whole is of iron or brass... blown by steam ... the pipes brass... the power of the tone ... extremely penetrating." 

Early depictions of this "Steam Trumpet" depict an inverted cone (i.e. ice cream cone shape) surmountined a short cylinder. Rather like a Trumpet Pipe from a pipe organ:

These experiments by Hill on the "Steam Trumpet" were promoted by a Mr Ledsom, a leading Birmingham Industrialist, who was active in promoting the construction of the 'Grand Junction Railway' which linked Birmingham to the pioneering 'Liverpool & Manchester Railway' via a junction at Warrington.  Whether the "Steam Trumpet" was intended as a signalling device or as a "Means of Audible Warning" is not clear, but according to the local Press it produced "so Grand and Melodic a tone" that rather than running away from the sound, people ran towards it out of sheer curiosity.

Ever inventive, Hill put this new invention to good use in his mighty organ for Birmingham Town Hall

William Hill's mighty organ for Birmingham Town Hall built in 1834

A story told about the "Steam Trumpet" and the most famous stop on the Birmingham organ, called the "Grand Ophicliede" says:

"The son of one of the principal Railway Directors is a very musical man, and he imagining that some other and more musical mode of warning people of the approach of a train, than a horrible whistle,  might be adopted, had two octaves of these large Trumpet Pipes made, and acted upon by Steam power, but their sound proved too beautiful and grand, and instead of people getting out of the way,  it was more likely the reverse would be the effect.  The consequence of this experiment was, that they were dispensed with, and the Pipes presented to the great Organ in the Town Hall ... by Mr. Hill."

This account obviously contains a certain amount of wishful thinking, but does link the development of the "Steam Trumpet" with the extra-loud organ pipes ("Grand Ophicliede") of Hill's Birmingham Organ.  Organ Historian Canon Nicholas Thistlethwaite adds "It can be ascerted with confidence that the development of the high- pressure [ Organ Stop] was closely bound up in Hill's work on early railway signalling devices - an association of art and industry which early-Victorian Birmingham could be proud."

What we don't know is what this "Steam Trumpet" sounded like, but it was probably akin to the "Grand Ophicliede" organ stop, which is reported to have " a colossal voice" (louder than the entire full organ) and "Clear, smooth, fluty tone."  Probably something like this

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