Stories of innovation: The referee's whistle

Stories of innovation: The referee's whistle

What: The referee’s whistle

Who: Birmingham local Joseph Hudson invented the first modern whistle but Kiwi William Harrington Atack was the first to use the whistle to stop a sports match (we’ll claim that).

When: 1868

The story:  Like so many other pieces of modern technology, the first use of a ‘whistling device’ can be traced back to ancient China. When night watchmen needed to alert towns of an impending Mongolian attack, they would blow into the top of an acorn to make a shrilling, warning sound. However, in the mid-to-late 19th century Joseph Hudson developed a whistle which was a little less nutty (pun intended). This whistle was developed primarily for the police, who had previously used hand rattles to get a criminal’s attention. Hudson’s brainchild was the Acme Thunderer pea whistle, a small device which, when blown into, would rattle a small light ball to make a distinct sound. Police could now direct traffic with ease.

Prior to the invention of the whistle, referees used the power of their voice or the theatrical fluttering of a handkerchief to make players stop and listen to them. In 1884, Cantabrian genius William Atack used a whistle to call an end to a rugby game, forever changing the face of sports and empowering disillusioned referees all over the world.   

Legacy and Impact: The common whistle has hardly changed at all since Hudson’s initial invention in 1868 apart from the pea-less design now being more common. Throughout history, whistles have been used (and sometimes still used) by groups such as the police, military, hunters, musicians and boatmen. Referees all over the world still use whistles to officiate sport and it is highly unlikely that the whistle will be usurped by any other device any time soon. 

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