By Andrew Wasson
The foghorn should be mysterious by virtue of its association with fog alone. In Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Foghorn,” Michael Rennie says about the fog: “What fascinates me is the unexpectedness of it. To walk along and not know what your life may hold one step from now.”1 But the foghorn has many more layers of mystery. This sound has been marked by intrigue, double-crossing, skullduggery – I said it and I’ll say it again, skullduggery – unexplained acoustic phenomena, outlandishly-sized trumpets, horse-powered trumpets, half-clarinet half-trumpets. If any of these things interest you, then read on, you’ve come to the right place.
Basic familiarity with the foghorn is assumed. All definitions have “fog” and “horn” requirements. For example, Merriam-Webster’s defines a foghorn as: “a horn (as on a ship) sounded in a fog to give warning.” Under this definition, a horn qualifies as a foghorn if and only if it is sounded in a fog. This definition strongly implies that on a sunny afternoon, a foghorn ceases to be a foghorn. It reverts to being simply a horn, or perhaps more accurately, a “sunhorn.”
Some definitions focus more on structure. For example: a horn “that sounds an alarm, often automatically, near places of danger where visible signals would be hidden in thick weather.” Webster’s International Dictionary of the English Language 577 (1898). Still other definitions focus on the sound of the horn: “a deep, loud horn for sounding warning signals to ships in foggy weather.” Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary (2010).2
Indeed, it is difficult to image a foghorn that has a high-pitched call. It is even harder to imagine a foghorn that is soft. Even harder still is a foghorn that is both high-pitched and soft. That would be a foghorn with a very soft and shrill tone. Thus, Dairy River recommends the following definition: “HORN producing a LOUD and LOW sound suitable for providing warnings in FOG.”
The fact that foghorns produce loud and low sounds is not a coincidence. Robert Foulis invented the foghorn in the early 1850s. Foulis was a Scottish-born “surgeon, mechanical and civil engineer, artist, engraver, inventor, foundryman, lecturer, scientist” living in New Brunswick, Canada. See P. G. Hall, A Misplaced Genius, New Brunswick Magazine (Saint John), I, 247–56 (1898). At the time, a wooly assortment of cannons, bells, and gongs were used as “fog signals.” But each had numerous drawbacks. Especially cannons.
So, as luck would have it, Foulis was walking home on a foggy night in St. John, when he heard his daughter playing piano in the distance. He noticed that the low notes carried the farthest and realized that this principle could be applied to the problem of fog signals. E.g. Jane MacDougall, An Ode to the Foghorn, National Post (Jan. 26, 2013). Struck by the wafting, inconsistent sounds, he asked his daughter to play the scales repeatedly so that he could test his hypothesis. Foulis and his Foghorn, 26(6) Boating 33 (Dec. 1969); see also Inventor of Foghorn is Celebrated in Saint John, Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph 22 (Dec. 24, 1965).
Being an engineer, Foulis was able to develop an automatic steam-powered horn system that would blast at specific intervals during foggy weather. Such a horn would be more powerful than a BELL but less dangerous than a CANNON. Foulis also invented “telegraphing by means of the steam horn from vessel to vessel by a pre-concerted plan of sounds and intervals forming words.” Hall at 253-54. Unfortunately, it seems that this code for foghorns has been lost.
But here’s where the story gets really weird. In 1853, Foulis – who was already involved with various engineering aspects of the lighthouse in Saint John on Partridge Island – floated his idea past the Commissioners of Lights for the Bay of Fundy. Boating at 56, reprinting Robert Foulis, Letter, Morning Freeman (Feb. 27, 1862). The Commissioners declined. They were intent on pursuing the “American Fog-bell.” However, the American fog bell was terrible, and in 1858, one of the commissioners (Isaac Woodward) approached Foulis for detailed plans of his invention. Foulis of course complied.
The normal course of events would have seen Woodward passing Foulis’ plans on to the Commissioners, the Commissioners solemnly approving the plans, the boisterous construction of the foghorn overseen by a discerning Foulis, a joyous inaugural procession through the streets of Saint John led by the Commissioners in full regalia, and last but not least a generous monetary reward to Foulis, who would spend his old age in a mansion overlooking Saint John harbor, regaled by his piano-playing daughter and noting with approbation every time he heard the foghorn sounded.
This is not what happened. Woodward instead gave the plans to another civil engineer, T. T. Vernon Smith. Woodward then encouraged Smith to submit them as his own to the Commissioners. The Commissioners (who included Woodward) accepted the “Vernon Smith” plan and constructed the fog horn at Partridge Island in 1859. Why this happened is not clear, although good money is on that Foulis was seen as an “eccentric” and was not taken seriously.
Foulis was pissed. He was outraged at Woodward’s “want of good faith” in “pirating his invention,” and petitioned the New Brunswick House of Assembly. The Assembly eventually credited Foulis as the true inventor. See Hall at 254 (reprinting proclamation).
Too late for Foulis though. “At a later period an enterprising American examined the invention of the fog alarm, and, recognizing it as a good thing, he had it patented in his own name and for his own advantage.” Hall at 254. That American was likely Celadon L. Daboll of New Haven, who patented a “fog alarm” in 1960 that applied mechanically-condensed air (think Dust-Off) to a trumpet or whistle “for the purpose of giving marine signals by sound.” U.S. Patent No. 28,837 (issued June 26, 1860). In early designs, the trumpet was powered by horses.
The allegations of skullduggery, however, may have been unfounded. Daboll’s foghorn – really a “monster clarinet” made out of brass like a trumpet – displayed a few key differences from the Foulis horn. Fog Signals, 49 Scientific American 161 (Sept. 16, 1883). First, it sported a ten inch long vibrating metal reed. Second, unlike the Foulis horn, the Daboll trumpet was powered by compressed air – not steam. Most reports note that it was seventeen feet long. It was apparently quite effective and became widely adopted in America, but its high maintenance caused it to eventually fall from favor. Arnold Burges Johnson, The Modern Light-house Service 70-71 (1890).
Notwithstanding the Foulis-Woodward intrigue, the birth of the foghorn was attended by other mysterious portents. Sometimes sailors heard fog signals “faintly where [they] ought to be heard loudly,” and “loudly where [they] should be heard faintly.” Arnold Burges Johnson, Sound Signals 726 (1883). Sometimes they were not heard as loudly as expected, where they were expected, or sometimes both. Sometimes they were heard better farther away than nearer. And sometimes they were “heard and lost and heard and lost again within reasonable hearing distance.” Id.
These strange phenomena attracted the attention of the era’s top scientists like the Smithsonian’s Joseph Henry and the Royal Institution’s John Tyndall. Along with numerous colleagues, they found that the abnormalities were likely due to a complex interaction of refraction, reflection, and diffraction.
As illustrated above, refraction occurs because sound travels more slowly through the cooler air directly above the water than the warmer air further aloft. The result is that sound waves turn downward (refract) towards the water.
The foghorn may have reached its pinnacle with the introduction of the “diaphone,” which is really a monstrous organ pipe adapted for foghorn use.3 “The diaphone is the most clamorous fog signal in the world. It has a roar like the advancing tornado, opening with a bellow like a bull moose and winding up with a grunt that shakes the atmosphere.” San Francisco Call 84 (Dec. 17 1911). The characteristic “grunt” accounts for its name “diaphone” that is, “two-tone.” The “grunt” unexpectedly proved useful to mariners – the lower frequency actually traveled farther than the main tone. And it also provided mariners a way to distinguish between land-based horns (which were diaphones) from ship-based horns (not diaphones). Building on its popularity, the grunt was eventually lengthened into a sustained lower tone.
But advances in nautical technology have made the foghorn obsolete. Many ship engines are so loud that they drown out the foghorn’s sound and other electronic navigational aids exist that provide more precise information about a harbor. After years of continuous operation, Foulis’ original horn on Partridge Island was shut off in May 1998. And many other foghorns stationed in lighthouses followed suit. Regularly working foghorns are difficult to find.
While the obsolescence was cheered by some, it was protested by many. Let me remind you that this is a sound with very few redeeming features. It’s loud. Remember it has a “bellow like a bull moose.” Clamorous. Repetitively persistent. And not just during daylight hours – at night too – while you are trying to sleep. It’s annoying. But despite all this, people really lament its disappearance. So much so that several artists and musicians in England created the Foghorn Requiem, a musical arrangement that involved three brass bands, more than 50 ships, and for the grand finale, the Souter Lighthouse diaphone foghorn itself. This just goes to show that even sounds that are annoying on their face, can get lodged in people’s brains and can accumulate enough pleasant memories that they can transform into sounds well-loved.
As a postscript, lest you fear that the sound of the foghorn is lost forever, the foghorn is still around. Ship captains still blow their horns as they navigate through the fog. Foghorns blow at hockey games when goals are scored.4 There is a lively market for foghorn ringtones. It might not be like the old days with a foghorn perched on every rocky crag, but don’t worry about the foghorns, they’ll be around.
1Barbara Bel Geddes responds, “You like that?” Rennie changes the subject. Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1958).
2An important aside about Foghorn Leghorn. Bombastic and blustering Southern-accented chicken. “Leghorn” is a breed of chicken. “Foghorn” refers to the volume of the rooster’s voice. The rooster that would become Foghorn Leghorn was inspired by a character called “The Sheriff” on a West Coast radio show called “Blue Monday Jamboree” as well as comic Kenny Delmar’s character “Senator Claghorn,” a blustering Southern politician. Keith Scott, The Foghorn Leghorn Story (Apatoons No. 150).
3 Robert Hope-Jones is generally credited with the popularization of the diaphone for organ usage in England. Hope-Jones later moved to the United States and became integral in Wurlitzer’s successful production of movie theatre organs. It was Canadian John Pell Northey, however, who adapted the diaphone for foghorn use and it was his son, Rodney Northey, who sustained the grunt into a full tone.
4Instead of signifying the presence of a geographic or topological feature (i.e. sounding a warning of a rocky shoal shrouded in fog), a horn at a hockey game signifies the presence of an event that just happened (i.e. a goal just was scored). Because the horn sounds at an event from the past, it is not a particularly good warning. Or is the warning for the other team that more goals will be scored?