Honking mad: How the car horn came to be

classic car horn

We have long been used to the sound of warning signals on vehicles, beginning with the trumpet that was blown to announce the arrival of the stagecoach.

Train whistles too — for some reason the sound of a steam train whistle at night always gave me a lonely feeling, a feeling not quite duplicated by the diesel locomotive’s air horn.

One big mess

The story goes that when the first crude locomotives began to run on the railways of England, the only way the engineman had of signaling his approach to country road crossings was by blowing lustily on a tin trumpet, same as those used by stage drivers.

One day in 1833, a farmer bound for market was crossing a track with 80 dozen eggs and 50 pounds of butter.

The engineman blew his trumpet, the hapless farmer didn’t hear it, and smash! The result was a mess—the wood of the shattered wagon all mixed with the eggs and butter, along with a dead horse and a slightly injured farmer.

The head of the railway company, after authorizing payment to the aggrieved farmer, went to George Stephenson, “The Father of Railways.” Stephenson invented the steam whistle, which was thereafter used on steam engines the world over to signal, not only for grade crossings but for a host of other things as well.

Sound the alarm

To distinguish them from train whistles, streetcars and trolleys adopted a large bell that loudly clanged a warning of approaching danger. When the bicycle craze hit in the late 19th century, a smaller and more melodious bell was used as a warning of the silent approach of the cyclist.

Then, in the 1890s, there was a new kid on the block. When the first crude motor cars hit the streets of cities they were not equipped with any signaling device.

Although many folks complained of how noisy the new-fangled devices were, they certainly sounded nothing like a horse and carriage approaching, while electric cars, which were popular at the time, were really quiet.

Third time’s a charm

The story is told of Mrs. Hamilton Fish, a wealthy New York lady, who bought an electric car. The salesman who delivered it showed her how to work the single power lever; push forward to go, pull back to back up, and lift up to stop.

Mrs. Fish sallied forth on her maiden voyage and did alright—for a while. Then a man stepped off the curb in front of Mrs. Fish, who panicked and shoved the lever forward, knocking the poor guy to the ground.

As he lay there dazed, the good lady jerked the lever to the rear and hit him again. Still trying to find “stop,” Mrs. Fish pushed forward and struck the poor soul a third time.

 The frightened victim managed to scramble to his feet and scurry off down the street, no doubt so she wouldn’t hit him again. Mrs. Fish finally got the car stopped, got out and stalked haughtily away, abandoning her new car forever.

Legislative affairs

The subject of which signal should be adopted for motor cars was hotly debated in the early motoring press, while legislatures passed laws they hoped would cover the problem.

This included England which decreed that “while any (road) locomotive is in motion, a person shall precede such locomotive on foot by not less than sixty yards, and shall carry a red flag constantly displayed, and shall warn the riders and drivers of horses of the approach of such locomotives, and shall signal the driver thereof when it shall be necessary to stop, and shall assist horses, and carriages drawn by horses, (in) passing the same.”

Pennsylvania’s 1896 law was even worse; it would require all motorists piloting their “horseless carriages”, upon chance encounters with cattle or livestock to (1) immediately stop the vehicle, (2) “immediately and as rapidly as possible … disassemble the automobile,” and (3) “conceal the various components out of sight, behind nearby bushes until equestrian or livestock is sufficiently pacified.”

Luckily, Pennsylvania’s governor vetoed this monstrosity.

In 1893, Paris ordained that vehicles must give warning of their approach by a trumpet horn or similar instrument, but not to sound like a steam whistle. In addition, if the vehicles ran silently they had to be equipped with a continuously ringing bell.

Listening in

A Pawtucket, R.I. man wrote to Horseless Age magazine in 1897: “I am strongly in favor of the vibrating bell, which has not the long-distance penetrating effect of the horn or whistle. Deliver me from living in a city with the driver of every vehicle tooting a horn.”

Nevertheless, the horn was adopted. First was the large brass trumpet horn with a rubber bulb placed conveniently at the driver’s hand. There were also loud klaxon horns that were operated mechanically by pushing briskly on a large button with the hand or foot.

As cars routinely became equipped with batteries, electric horns were developed. Who can forget the distinctive “ah-ooga” sound of those early Model T Fords, as well as many other cars of the day. There were horns that gave forth a loud, raucous “B-e-e-p!” and then the trumpet horns that, although loud, were quite melodious.

The center of the steering wheel was settled upon as the proper place to locate the horn button and remains so more than one hundred years later.

There were novelty horns available as well. Musical horns were all the rage when I was a young buck, some that played a preset melody when activated, while others had four or five buttons on the steering post that could be manipulated to play different tunes.

Another, although it was illegal in Pennsylvania where I then lived, was the “wolf whistle,” a small trumpet that operated from the car’s manifold exhaust gases and gave off a penetrating “we-e-et-who-o-o-o” whenever a pretty girl was seen on the street.

So, our poor Pawtucket friend had to put up with vehicle drivers tooting their horns after all.


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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.



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