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 car horns have changed through the years? Here’s a quick look at the history of car horns.
Early Warning Signals
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. Early signaling options included bells, whistles and hand-squeezed horns (yes, like the one you had on your bike as a kid), says Jalopnik. These simple sounds and motions were helpful to other vehicles, including horse-drawn carriages, and pedestrians as “horseless carriages” started becoming more common on the roads.
The increasing speed of cars, however, eventually necessitated something a little louder than a simple bell.
Early Car Horns
At the beginning of the 20th century, the quest for effective in-car signaling devices changed the acoustics of American roads forever. Automobile owners had their choice of whistles, sirens and bells so they could manually alert pedestrians and other road users. According to MoparMagazine.com, 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, multi-toned horn.
Simultaneously, a young inventor called Miller Rees Hutchinson, who also worked with Thomas Edison, set to work to improve on the existing horn, says Car and Driver. 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 loud and piercing sound, according to MoparMagazine.com. The Klaxon, which was frequently found on the early Ford cars, Model T and Model A, provided the now infamous “aoogha” sound. Klaxon horns remained popular until the 1930s, says Car and Driver, when they began to be replaced by electric car horns.
Modern Car Horns
Modern car horns’ function has not changed much over the years, but they do require less power and electronic magnetic interference, according to Car and Driver. They are also built to last longer — using anti-corrosion materials and filtering out dirt and humidity.
The tones of car horns have changed over the years, though. Over the past century, the practice of combining two horns that produce two different notes has resulted in more unique tones, says MoparMagazine.com. Car and Driver states that there are two main types of modern car horns: disc and fanfare horns. You’ll recognize a disc horn by its metallic sounding beep, while a fanfare horn is a fuller and more rich tone.
One memorable horn in the 1960s took a unique turn and did not use the common two-tone sound. Plymouth’s Road Runner emitted a sound that didn’t quite fit with its tough muscle car exterior, but it was certainly attention-getting. MoparMagazine.com notes that the Road Runner’s horn sounded just like the famous cartoon, a familiar high-pitched “beep-beep,” which was only a single tone.
Car Horn Regulations
Horns are mandatory on cars, but each state determines what is and isn’t legal in regards to car horns, says Car and Driver. These regulations are typically in regards to the maximum allowed decibels as well as how audible they are — essentially balancing the need for the horns to be heard while keeping them from becoming unnecessarily loud. For example, Car and Driver notes that California’s rules dictate that a horn should be audible from at least 200 feet away, but it should not be “unreasonably loud.” Aftermarket horns are also limited to no more than 110 decibels. This 200 foot rule is common in many states, says Car and Driver, and most car manufacturers monitor the decibel levels on their car horns to keep them within reasonable limits.
The car horn, one of the many things we take for granted about our vehicles, has its roots in road safety — something that remains as important today as it was then.
Originally published on January 28, 2015.