November 05, 2020

Through the Decades - Whistles

Picture a football game being played around 150 years ago. Twenty-two men chasing a ball, caught up in the fight to win the ball and score a coveted goal. Possibly it's raining, the wind is blowing, and the crowd are shouting and cheering. The referee spots an infringement, he shouts out, a couple of players near him hear his call, the players behind him and at the other end of the pitch do not - the game stalls. The crowd are unaware of the infringement and start to shout out their disapproval to those on the field. The referee waves his handkerchief (common practice back then) in an effort to get the player's attention and gain control of the match. The situation was not ideal, and without a method of attracting the entire field's attention, the referee could not keep the game flowing.

To overcome the problem football needed a solution. The game required something to control play, something that could broadcast a referee's commands. Enter the whistle!

A whistle can produce sounds of 80 decibels up to and beyond 120 decibels – a power lawnmower to siren levels. At these levels, the whistle produces a sound that can be heard not only all-around a football stadium but up to a mile away.

In the early days of whistle production, there was really only one type of whistle available. Today, referees have a greater choice; there are many makes and designs making noise for a variety of situations, there are standard whistles and pealess whistles, and there is even an electronic whistle available for the hygiene conscious!

But, how did the rise of the diminutive whistle begin?

Image: Cosmin Iftode/

The First Whistles

The first-ever use of a whistle to referee a football match was at a game being played at Nottingham Forest in England in 1878. The whistle, made from brass, was designed and made by Joseph Hudson, a toolmaker from Birmingham.

Hudson set up his whistle-making workshop in 1870, making whistles for the local market. A chance discovery in the 1880s led him to create the first pea whistle, which generated a new, more attention-grabbing sound than original whistle designs. This new design was meant for use by the police, but, after early successes, it was soon adopted for use at Football Association games. Thereafter, its use spread to football games being played around the World. Hudson's whistle was called the Acme Thunderer and 140 years later is still in use!

The Thunderer pea whistle comprises a small ball (the pea) in an air chamber. Blowing into the mouthpiece of the device causes the pea to rattle around in the chamber. The action of the pea creates a pulsed-effect as it disturbs the airflow, which results in the familiar trilling whistle that we all know.

So good was the pea whistle that it's basic design changed very little over the next 110 years. Small adjustments to the design of the whistle mouthpiece, the chamber, the air holes, and the whistle material (plastic whistles were introduced in the early 20th century) were made. These adjustments enabled not only louder sounds but sound for varying situations, uses and users. The pea whistle remained extremely popular despite having a few problems. The pea, made from cork, could become jammed if it got wet or dirty, reducing the level of sound from the whistle and even stopping it working altogether. Over the years, metal and plastic peas have substituted cork.

Then in 1987, Ron Foxcroft and Chuck Shepherd created the first new whistle for referees to grace the market in over one hundred years - the pea-less Fox 40 whistle. This whistle looked similar to the Thunderer, but worked on a different and simple principle, and had no moving parts. The design was based on air, blown into the whistle, being split into two separate flows, each producing different frequencies. These then merged in the whistle's resonate chamber alternately reinforcing and cancelling each other out to create a loud piercing sound. This new type of whistle was immediately popular as it removed the only issue that encumbered the original pea whistle design.

Fox 40 black whistle, by
, cropped /
CC BY-SA 1.0

Whistles in the 21st Century

While there are numerous companies now making referee’s whistles, perhaps the most famous and widely used are still Hudson’s Acme Specialist Whistles and Fox 40 International whistles.

The original designs have not changed too significantly over the years. However, with the development of moulded plastic, the industry has been able to offer an array of cheaper, more colourful options. And, though the original designs have proved their worth, the whistle is under constant development with new models being produced every year. A recent addition to the range is the electronic whistle. Battery-powered, these offer a hygienic option with up to 125 decibels of sound, different tones and push-button operation.

For something so small, the whistle has played such a large part in the world’s most popular game.

For more football related ‘Through The Decades’ articles, check out our Quick Reads section on the Football Buzz page:

Main Image: Besjunior/

Published: April 13, 2020
Last updated: November 05, 2020