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A short history of the football referee's whistle

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Every now and then, we step away from the game to try and find objects of interest that may have been missed in the daily brouhaha. The referees for one, are usually not given their fair due of importance unless they bungle up, which isn’t a very nice thing. But there is one thing that we miss in the cacophony of football, which is also the diminutive weapon of choice of the referee – the petite whistle. Available in a number of colours, the whistle is very easily overlooked, even though it pretty much rules every game of football, from start to finish, literally. It is a simple instrument which produces a sound from a stream of forced air. Here are a few things about these shrill beasts that you may have missed.

  1. The earliest whistle dates back to ancient China, in the third century, where watchmen blew on top of acorns to warn the town of Mongolian invaders.
  2. Joseph Hudson, of Birmingham in England, came up with the first whistle ever which was used in a match by a football referee in 1868. The first game ever credited with the use of a whistle was a game at Nottingham Forest. Before this, referees used handkerchiefs to the same effect. Obviously, the hankies didn’t last for very long, and may have taken away a wee bit of macho with the waving.
  3. William Atack, a referee from New Zealand was reportedly the first referee to employ a whistle to stop a rugby game in 1884. Prior to this, referees depended on their voice to control the flow, unless the game called for a handkerchief.
  4. By 1884, Hudson was pioneering the whistle field and launched the much loved, and most successful whistle till date, the ‘Acme Thunderer’. It was also the first ever pea whistle.
  5. The whistle is available in many varieties, but football uses mainly the pea whistle and the pea-less design. The pea is exactly what the name suggests, a small, rounded object made of metal or cork which is inserted inside the air-chamber of a whistle and forces air in a fashion so as to produce the familiar shrill sound. The pea-less design eliminates the pea altogether and works simply by routed air pressure.
  6.  The two leading manufacturers of whistles used in football are Acme and Fox 40.
  7. Acme, which still retails the ‘Thunderer’, has also evolved with time and produces some of the most popular options.
  8. Fox 40 came about after Ron Foxcroft, wanted to start a manufacturing unit of his own, which replaced the much troubling pea. In his opinion, the pea was rendered useless after it came in contact with dirt and water, and jammed often. A professional basketball referee by profession, he invented the first pealess whistle design in 1987.
  9. The new design by Foxcroft was remarkable and killed most competition off immediately, as it didn’t have any moving part. It wouldn’t jam, freeze and could even be blown right after being submerged in water as the air immediately pushed all water out of the chamber. The first prototype was designed by a two man team of Foxcroft and Chuck Shepherd, an industrial designer.
  10. The name, Fox 40, stemmed from the Fox in Foxcroft’s name, and 40, which was his age at the time of the product launch.
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