History of the Car Horn
It’s a distinctive sound that provides a constant backdrop to cities around the world: the car horn. Ever wonder where this quintessential caution device come from? Or how have car horns changed through the years?
The Pedestrian-Operated Horn
Can you imagine having a man walk in front of your car who blows a horn and waves a red flag, everywhere you drive? In a time when there were far fewer cars on the roads, it was a requirement in Britain. Long before the days of interstates, backup cameras and drive-throughs, drivers made use of warning signals to alert other road users to their approach or possible danger. Unsurprisingly, before long, car owners and manufacturers realized it would be much more efficient to have drivers operate their warning devices themselves from inside their vehicles.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the quest for effective in-car signaling devices changed the acoustics of American roads forever. Automobile owners around the globe had their choice of whistles, sirens and bells so they could manually alert pedestrians and other road users. Interesting variations included the Sireno, which could be heard a mile away, according to its manufacturers; the Godin, a “press while you steer” device; and the Gabriel, an inventive loud horn that was powered by the vehicle’s exhaust. In fact, the horn became very popular: the sound it emitted was quite novel at the time, as well as relatively piercing, and everybody wanted one.
Simultaneously, a young inventor called Miller Rees Hutchinson, who was later to work with Thomas Edison for almost a decade, became more and more worried about the increasing numbers of automobiles in New York City and the mounting risk of accidents. So he set to work to improve on the existing horn. His invention, which became known as the Klaxon, could be operated either by a small hand crank or via motor-powered batteries and emitted a directional, loud and piercing sound. The fact that it was directional enabled pedestrians to quickly pinpoint the source of the sound and get out of the way of the vehicle. The Klaxon proved so effective that in early 1908, Hutchinson licensed his patents to Lovell-McConnell Manufacturing Company and its production, as well as national and international distribution, took off.
In 1910 another game-changer entered the market. An Englishman named Oliver Lucas developed a basic electric car horn that transferred sound more effectively and could be heard over a mile away. His electric klaxon worked by an electromagnet acting upon a steel diaphragm while a contactor intermittently interrupted the electric current.
These two inventions lie at the foundation of what we call car horns today. Over the past century, the practice of combining two horns that produce two different chords has resulted in more perceptible sounds. This means that the car horn can usually be detected even in surroundings with high ambient noise levels.
However, car manufacturers have for decades been reducing the amount of noise drivers experience in their cars. They’ve become so successful that in many vehicles, siren and horn sounds are barely audible anymore. But for pedestrians and residents of homes along roads, the noises are uncomfortably loud. As a consequence, many cities and states have created legislation that restricts the use of horns within city limits while still allowing for legitimate “horn honking” when necessary.
The car horn, one of the many things we take for granted about our vehicles, has its roots in road safety—one of the few things we don’t take for granted. Drive safe!