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For Serious Whistle-Blowers, There’s Just One Question: With or Without the Pea?

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The reason is this: All whistles whistle, but those with peas produce a trill as air passes over the pea, which some whistlers use to create a range of sounds. Experienced whistle-users like Mr. George Parks use their pea whistles to articulate specific commands, which is useful when he needs to get the attention of several hundred marching-band members spread out over a large field.

Peas have shifted in and out of favor over the decades. The first whistle, circa 1870, was pealess and solid brass. It was followed in 1884 by the first pea whistle, dubbed the Acme Thunderer, made by J. Hudson & Co. (Whistles) Ltd. in Birmingham, England. Early peas were made of wood, which was replaced by cork at the turn of the century. Cork was easier to shape and didn’t make a rattling sound in the chamber. It’s still the material of choice, although American Whistle Corp., Columbus, Ohio, uses a kind of faux cork, a tan synthetic, in its brass whistles.

Howard Wright, a dentist and schoolteacher in St. Louis, has studied many aspects of the pea, from its tonal contribution to its role in whistling underwater, which is useful for scuba divers. In his whistle design, the pea actually pushes water out of a chamber. He has even investigated which type of whistle is cleaner. He has found that the pea whistle, “because of its design, is eight times less susceptible to bacteria than a pealess whistle,” he says.

For serious whistle-blowers, there is really just one question: with or without the pea?

George Parks, founder of the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy in Amherst, Mass., insists that his whistles include peas in their air chambers. “Anything else is simply a waste of time,” he says of his favorite model.

George Parks whistle

George Parks

The reason is this: All whistles whistle, but those with peas produce a trill as air passes over the pea, which some whistlers use to create a range of sounds. Experienced whistle-users like Mr. Parks use their pea whistles to articulate specific commands, which is useful when he needs to get the attention of several hundred marching-band members spread out over a large field.

Plus, he says, “I am a purist.”

Buddy Tarbotton of North Wildwood, N.J., is a purist, too. But he’s also a high-school basketball referee and likes whistles without peas for their sheer “piercing sound.” That, he says, gets people’s attention more quickly, which is important in a noisy gymnasium.

But Dan Cutcher, secretary for the Ohio Wrestling Officials Association, is so adamant about using only pea whistles that he warns association members that if he sees any pealess models around their necks, “I’m going to break them.” Pealess models screech, he explains, and with wrestling referees down on the mats, close to the wrestlers’ heads, one long toot could hurt an athlete’s ear.

Peas have shifted in and out of favor over the decades. The first whistle, circa 1870, was pealess and solid brass. It was followed in 1884 by the first pea whistle, dubbed the Acme Thunderer, made by J. Hudson & Co. (Whistles) Ltd. in Birmingham, England. Early peas were made of wood, which was replaced by cork at the turn of the century. Cork was easier to shape and didn’t make a rattling sound in the chamber. It’s still the material of choice, although American Whistle Corp., Columbus, Ohio, uses a kind of faux cork, a tan synthetic, in its brass whistles.

Pea models dominated the market from the 1930s to just after World War II, and then traded popularity with pealess over the years. About 15 years ago demand for pealess whistles increased, according to Simon Topman, managing director of J. Hudson. Mr. Topman has no clue what will be popular in five years. “It would take a better man than me to predict the future,” which is why J. Hudson makes both types of whistles, for a total of about 6.2 milliona year.

Howard Wright, a dentist and schoolteacher in St. Louis, has studied many aspects of the pea, from its tonal contribution to its role in whistling underwater, which is useful for scuba divers. In his whistle design, the pea actually pushes water out of a chamber. He has even investigated which type of whistle is cleaner. He has found that the pea whistle, “because of its design, is eight times less susceptible to bacteria than a pealess whistle,” he says.


Greg West of Columbus, Ohio, whistles both ways. When he’s working as a referee at a wrestling match, he uses a whistle with a pea because it’s not as loud and he says it takes less effort. But when he’s officiating at a football game, he uses a pealess whistle because it’s louder and he doesn’t want to risk having a pea jam on a rainy day.

Getting stuck is pretty much the only thing that can go wrong with a pea in a whistle. It doesn’t occur often, but it can happen, and theories about why peas jam are many. Mr. Tarbotton, the basketball referee, cites “the saliva factor,” saying buildup can bog down the pea. Another theory suggests it can get stuck if the whistler drinks too many soft drinks, which makes sugary saliva that gums up the pea. In cold weather, spit freezes and can trap the ball. Humid weather causes the pea to swell, although Mr. Topman says he has been assured that his company’s Acme Thunderer — with pea — works even in a tropical downpour.

Blowing too hard can jam a pea, as can keeping a whistle in a pocket, where it can collect debris like bits of tissue that can hinder pea movement in the chamber. Mr. West likens the effect of having a jammed pea to when some of his colleagues played a prank and smeared peanut butter in his whistle, resulting in “no sound at all.”

Norm Dueck, manager of officiating for the Canadian Hockey Association, says a pea can get stuck if it becomes too dry. He says soaking the whole whistle in water for about an hour remedies the situation. Mr. Dueck has only had to wet his whistle to unjam a pea less than a handful of times in his 18-year career.

Ron Foxcroft prefers eliminating the pea entirely. When he officiated at the gold-medal basketball game in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, a player was hit in the nose under the hoop. Mr. Foxcroft tried to blow his whistle to signal the foul, but no sound came out. “It got stuck,” he recalls. He shook the whistle, loosening the pea after about two seconds, “which could have been two hours while you are standing there,” he recalls. During a pre-Olympics tourney in Brazil in 1984, it happened again, only this time, he says, the crowd “got angry.”

Mr. Foxcroft went home to Hamilton, Ontario, determined to design a better and pea-free whistle. He worked with an engineer for 3 1/2 years and came up with a whistle that boasts three harmonically tuned wind chambers that are welded together ultrasonically. He says he wasn’t going only for loudness, but also wanted “a penetrating shrill.”

His Fox 40 has become popular among football and basketball refs. “We put the whistle world back on its heels,” he says, by marketing his product “like it was a surgical instrument you bought over the counter, marketing it like a precision medical instrument.”

Dave Foxcroft, Mr. Foxcroft’s son and vice president of the company, says, “It goes against the philosophy of our company to manufacture a whistle with a pea in it.” But about two years ago, the company introduced a metal whistle with a small round object inside made of moisture-resistant polypropylene.

Dave Foxcroft insists it isn’t a pea. It’s a “sound ball.”

By Patricia Davis
The Wall Street Journal