The Final Whistle: From China, via Birmingham, to the lips of some of the game’s most powerful officials – the story of a small and mighty object, and one of the world’s finest producers.
By Duncan Riches
Photography by Alastair Strong
This article first appeared in Issue 2 of The Green Soccer Journal, Summer 2011
It’s pretty hard to imagine a world without the whistle. This small but perfectly formed object is widely used across the world in sport, industry, safety, travel, music, the military, the police and even by those highly skilled shepherds on BBC’s “One Man & His Dog.” It’s a versatile object, a design that appears to fit the needs of humankind well. If you stop to think about it though, there never really has been a world without the whistle. Technically, it’s an aerophone, an instrument which produces sound through a forced stream of air. So technically speaking, all of us are aerophones, because we have this very instrument at our own disposal, in the form of our lips.
If you look for origins though, a rudimentary search will inform you of a vague history in ancient China, or the use of river Nile reeds between thumbs in ancient Egypt. Which basically tells us (since we all did that old blade of grass between the thumbs trick when we were five years old) that some form of whistle aside from our lips has been around forever, and, hate to be the whistle-blower, but some things don’t have clear origins – they just are.
In more recent industrial history it’s easier to trace the life of the Acme Whistles shown here, the current provider of whistles to Fifa referees. Founded in Birmingham in the 1870s as J Hudson & Co. by Joseph Hudson and his brother, the company went on to become the largest and most famous producer of whistles in the world and later became rebranded as Acme. In 1883 they won a competition to supply the London Metropolitan Police with whistles, who at the time were using rattles, and from this early success they went on to dominate the British market in all things shrill. Along the way they supplied their famous Thunderer whistle to officers on the Titanic (a good latter day marketing opportunity perhaps, but at the time hardly a ringing endorsement for the effectiveness of their whistles in safety situations) and one of their more recent designs the Tornado 2000, billed as the world’s most powerful whistle, can easily reach 122 decibels. The Tornado 2000 is the preferred choice of top level referees, which could explain their reluctance to believe players who claim not to have heard it (Robin van Persie take note). What referees may have used before the advent of modern whistles is more of a mystery, you can find various claims that they either used their voices, handkerchiefs, rams’ horns, elks’ bladders or even a flute with a bee in it. In a parallel world somewhere, one can imagine everyone waiting for the “the final handkerchief” and players being educated to always “play to the ram’s horn.”
So what of these formidable and beautiful objects that have travelled an unbroken lineage from the industrial revolution to twenty-first century? It’s safe to say that they are an exemplar of the notion that necessity is the mother of invention and, it must also be said, they are pretty fun to blow. Just remember, whistles are the exclusive preserve of those in authority and it’s probably best to not give one to a small child at a party – you’ll never hear the end of it.