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Dead medium: Dead public sirens and horns; tower clocks and chimes; city-wide public address systems; factory whistles; foghorns

llorton@hostnet.org (Lewis Lorton),

rogers@zephyr.instrumental.com (Bob Rogers),

ggg@well.com (Gary Gach),

tim@ciemed.nus.edu.sg (Timothy Poston),

MSCHUBIN/0001970179@MCIMAIL.COM (Mark Schubin),

dmorton@rci.rutgers.edu (David Morton),

peterb@support.psi.com (Peter Bachman),

eweise@usatoday.com (Elizabeth Weise),

strecker@sirius.com (Candi Strecker),

morbus@totalnetnh.net (Morbus),

carosue@iguana.ruralnet.net (Susan Crites)

(((bruces remarks: Working Note 29.5, "Dead Public Sirens and Horns," provoked a lot of response, a testimony to the ubiquity of these public alarm systems. It's pleasant to see this. Now we need some public-spirited souls to research some public alarm systems that are unquestionably dead, and present us with some thoroughly annotated documentation on their origin, use and decline.)

From: box2321@teleport.com (Trevor Blake): I was born in 1966 in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA. I lived the first three years of my life in nearby Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the home of the atomic bomb. Oak Ridge is full of public sirens, both in the 'city' and suburbs, and to the best of my memory they were regularly sounded up into the 1980s. They sounded, not surprisingly, like air raid sirens from movies: a long, non-warbling monotone roar, with a gentle attack and decay. They consisted of megaphones atop 60+ foot poles. A childhood friend lived in a house with such a siren on the sidewalk in front of his house.

Marginally related were the "tornado drills" I took part in during my first years of schooling in the 1970s. It was not until I was an adult that I thought back on the profound lack of tornados in the Eastern Appalachian part of the United States... while on the other hand, Oak Ridge and Knoxville were 'ground zero' cities for their nuclear and other power resources. We would silently line the hallways, squatting on the floor with books held over our heads.

From: llorton@hostnet.org (Lewis Lorton): "Public sirens and horns .... once a very important medium, they are now obsolete pretty much everywhere."

You have to get out of the big cities into the countryside in the mid-west. Sirens and horns are still fairly common.

From: rogers@zephyr.instrumental.com (Bob Rogers): These systems are far from "obsolete pretty much everywhere," and they're not "defunct." In most of the US they provide wind and tornado warnings. Here in Minnesota, they're tested at 1 PM on the first Wednesday of every month: the Los Angeles artists Mr. Jennings mentioned need only come here and listen to the "performance."
From: ggg@well.com (Gary Gach): "At least as of 1996 in San Francisco, there was a Tuesday noontime whistle; presumably at a fire station, but I don't really know."

And there used to be "foghorns" on foggy days and nights, long after ships needed them for navigation, until the cost of maintaining this romantic relic was made known to the bean-counters at City Hall, who axed them from the budget.

From: tim@ciemed.nus.edu.sg (Timothy Poston): It seems reasonable to consider, along with these systems for communicating emergency information, systems that transmitted an important routine message == the time. Big Ben and innumerable other town clock bells (not to mention such practices as Hong Kong's noonday gun) originally broadcast the time to a large fraction of each one's surrounding population. The populations have grown, the clock towers are often surrounded by higher buildings, and the traffic noise is loud, so that they are audible over smaller distances to a much smaller proportion of the people.

Big Ben, of course, is still broadcast live by the BBC; but its notes have become more of a signature tune than a time signal.

These systems are dead as media by which people's time is managed (people use their own watches and clocks), but persist as honoured rituals.

From: From: MSCHUBIN/0001970179@MCIMAIL.COM (Mark Schubin): Beyond sirens, there were also intra-city public address systems. I grew up in Hoboken, New Jersey. Hoboken had a city-wide public address system. Speakers were mounted on each street corner. They would announce lost children, special events, and street closings and would play Christmas songs during the holiday season.
From: dmorton@rci.rutgers.edu (David Morton): You forgot the factory whistle/bell, which called workers to the factories, announced dinner breaks, and gave the signal to go home. (Think Fred Flintstone). When I was a graduate student at Georgia Tech from 1990-95, I practically lived in the building adjacent to the steam plant, where a factory whistle blew to signal the beginning and end of classes.

It was so loud in my building that all conversation had to stop for the five seconds or so that the whistle blew. I recall being on the phone several times when the whistle went off, and having to explain later what had just happened. The whistle, installed in the 20s, was no longer effective by the 1950s, when the campus had grown larger. But it is still used today.

From: peterb@support.psi.com (Peter Bachman): I think alarm sirens are still a requirement near nuclear power places since I live near one, and they were chastised for not having one. I can't really imagine what it might sound like.
From: eweise@usatoday.com (Elizabeth Weise): The air raid siren/general distress sirens in San Francisco still go off every Wednesday at 12:00 noon. I set my watch by them once a week.

In Marmet West Virginia, where the volunteer fire department covers fires and mine accidents, the eerie two- toned wail of the call-in siren echoes up and down the hollows for up to five minutes. A fair number of people up in the hills either don't have phones or are on party lines, so the telephone isn't a good method of contacting people, thus the siren is still the best way to inform volunteers they're needed.

From: strecker@sirius.com (Candi Strecker): "At least as of 1996 in San Francisco, there was a Tuesday noontime whistle; presumably at a fire station, but I don't really know."

Heard it today (paying a little more attention than I would normally!) at its usual 11:58. Not sure where it comes from but believe it's a single location somewhere downtown.

From: morbus@totalnetnh.net (Morbus) There was a whistle that used to go off here in Concord, New Hampshire every noon until very recently. It probably stopped within the last 2 years or so.
From: carosue@iguana.ruralnet.net (Susan Crites) In my small town (Lamar, Colorado, pop. about 9000, largest town for a two hour drive in any direction) we have a current, recently upgraded even, warning horn system. It is intended primarily as early warning for major storms such as tornados. They blow them at 8am, noon and 5 pm, (plus for 1 minute at noon on the first Monday of every month) and even though I live about 3 miles from the central location, I can hear them easily at my place, even indoors. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of other small towns still have them too. I can gather more info about them if anyone should be interested.

You probably should re-label them as 'doddering' rather than totally dead.