Voice in the Fog
March 30, 2012 8:48 AM   Subscribe

“It is startlingly loud,” he warns, “and it's loud enough that you can actually feel the sound wave going through your torso.” On East Brother Island in California, lightstation keeper Peter Berkhout is caretaker to one of the last working vintage foghorns in the United States.
posted by Laminda (30 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Oh wow! What a great post (I am unabashedly pro-foghorn. It is my favorite sound).
posted by troika at 9:04 AM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I saw the link, I was bemoaning the near-demise of the vintage foghorn. After reading the article, though, I realized that the things would have driven me crazy if I'd lived within earshot. Good ol' fashioned tech is not always better! (I wouldn't mind a demo, though, as long as I were about a mile away...)
posted by Currer Belfry at 9:14 AM on March 30, 2012

The keepers' house is now a B&B - my wife and I stayed there last fall. It's really nice, and Peter and his wife are great hosts. Very peaceful and quiet, and you get to see seals and pelicans on the nearby rocks.

During the fall and winter, there's a much quieter foghorn that sounds every couple of minutes, but you don't hear it much inside. Peter demo'ed the old one, and I can testify that it's insanely loud. It was cool to see all the inner workings, though.
posted by chbrooks at 9:22 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

"One day many years ago a man walked along and stood in the sound of the ocean on a cold sunless shore and said "We need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships; I'll make one. I'll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like an empty house when you open the door, and like the trees in autumn with no leaves. A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore. I'll make a sound that's so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls, and to all who hear it in the distant towns. I'll make me a sound and an apparatus and they'll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life.""

The Fog Horn blew.

"I made up that story," said McDunn quietly, "to try to explain why this thing keeps coming back to the lighthouse every year. The fog horn calls, I think, it comes..."
Ray Bradbury, The Fog Horn
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:27 AM on March 30, 2012 [8 favorites]

They still have a couple of these around the UK coast, as covered in the outstanding BBC programme Coast (SLYT).

As an aside, wouldn't it be great if Peter Berkhout was also a fan of Leghorns.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 9:31 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love when it's a still morning at 6am in San Francisco and you can hear the foghorns, even way inland in Noe Valley. I've always wondered which horn that was; maybe the ones on Golden Gate Bridge?
posted by Nelson at 9:42 AM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Old-school foghorn lovers should check out this full-length CD of a foghorn on Lake Michigan recorded in 1972. I play it on a loop all night while I'm sleeping. Delicious.
posted by mykescipark at 9:43 AM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I can hear the foghorns from several miles inland in San Francisco too. Those things are loud! Pretty sure Nelson is right and we're hearing the Golden Gate Bridge ones. I know some people complain the horns are annoying and keep them up, but I love them.
posted by zachlipton at 9:57 AM on March 30, 2012

Apparently some fog horns look like ridiculous house-sized weapons.
posted by kiltedtaco at 9:58 AM on March 30, 2012

Related, in the sense of large loud things that are becoming less common, is the Chrysler Air Raid Siren.
posted by foonly at 11:04 AM on March 30, 2012

Rented a cottage adjacent to a foghorn one summer. By adjacent I mean the foghorn was 30 ft away. After a while you tended not to notice it.
posted by Gungho at 11:04 AM on March 30, 2012

My wife and I were just talking about a short getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life here in Eagle Point Oregon. This looks like just the thing.

I can't wait to have him blow that foghorn and, so to speak, turn my bowels to jelly.

Thanks for this posting.
posted by mule98J at 11:10 AM on March 30, 2012

Related, in the sense of large loud things that are becoming less common, is the Chrysler Air Raid Siren.

When I was a little kid, they used to test the air raid sirens in San Francisco at noon on Tuesdays. Everyone just knew that if it was noon on Tuesday when it went off, that it was just a test. I figured, even at an early age, that if one were to stage a successful air raid on San Francisco, the time & date to do so were thusly made obvious.

That, & I miss the foghorns like I miss sunshine.
posted by Devils Rancher at 11:20 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Technically this is a “diaphone,” so-named because it generates two separate tones that constitute the iconic “BEEE-ohhh”

The video is disappointing; the second tone doesn't seem to sound at all on this machine.
posted by anazgnos at 11:49 AM on March 30, 2012

I was once standing right by a [non-vintage] fog horn when it went off. I almost had a heart attack, my ears rang for a long long time and I think my head felt like it exploded. This was here. Great place. Except for the fog horn. I think security is better now there, though.
posted by Bovine Love at 1:19 PM on March 30, 2012

When I was a little kid, they used to test the air raid sirens in San Francisco at noon on Tuesdays.

Still do. Every Tuesday. We just hope the aliens or whoever don't choose a Tuesday noon to attack.

(My dog cocks his head in the cutest way when he hears the bridge horns, but he doesn't seem to even notice the air raid sirens. Weird.)
posted by trip and a half at 1:30 PM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was at the Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior years ago, and the foghorn still runs, at 5% of it's original volume.

It rattled the entire structure.

I can't even imagine one at full volume.
posted by timsteil at 1:31 PM on March 30, 2012

The Google has a bug and gave me a bad link. I was here when I got hammered. Well, I got hammered there in more ways then one (and have also spent inordinate amounts of time watching whales, taking pictures and generally just chillin there too)
posted by Bovine Love at 1:37 PM on March 30, 2012

We used to take summer holidays in Portpatrick. Up on the next headland was Killantringan Lighthouse, with its huge foghorn building like the one at Flat Holm. We toured it one day, with the beautful polished compressor machinery and brasswork making quite an impression on this tiny proto-engineer.

A couple of nights later it must have got foggy, as we were awoken to the whole caravan vibrating to the foghorn braying BAAAAH-ouh! across to Belfast Bay. My sister had a screaming fit. I was transfixed.

Engineering. Fuck yeah.
posted by scruss at 1:56 PM on March 30, 2012

I'm assuming these guys are making a pretty penny licensing it to movie trailer soundtracks, though.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:51 PM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

the Golden Gate, which he and his fellow pilots calculated gets 15,000 hours of fog in a year’s time

Someone buy them a new calculator.
posted by Twang at 3:50 PM on March 30, 2012

Someone buy them a new calculator

Or a new calendar?
posted by yoink at 6:14 PM on March 30, 2012

From foonly's link:
Chrysler Air Raid Siren, the most powerful siren in the world. It's the size of a car, measuring near 12-feet in length and standing more than 6-feet tall. It also weighs twice as much as today's typical car. This gigantic siren is powered by an 180-HP Chrysler Industrial V-8 HEMI® gasoline engine. The super-duty engine directly drives a three-stage compressor that blows 2,610 cubic feet of air a minute, at nearly 7 PSI, into a giant siren rotor. The compressed air screams through the chopper and out through six giant horns with an exit velocity of 400 miles per hour. The result is an incredibly loud 138 dB sound (measured 100 feet from the siren).

The Chrysler Air Raid Siren is so powerful that it can reportedly start fires with just the sound vibrations it produces. It can turn fog into rain, clearing the sky. It can produce an effective 70 dB air raid signal for a distance of two miles, and under proper conditions can be heard 30 to 50 miles away.
I'm not sure how much of this I believe, but it sure sounds impressive!
posted by kiltedtaco at 6:25 PM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I hope to die building noisy machines such as this.
posted by runehog at 2:36 AM on March 31, 2012

> “Chrysler Air Raid Siren, the most powerful siren in the world ...”

Ironic that the US, a country that has never suffered from large-scale aerial bombing, would come up with with a siren of epic power. Places that did actually get levelled had to make do with polite little New Carter sirens, or in some cases, a frightened dude running around blowing a whistle.
posted by scruss at 5:01 AM on March 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

As far as the air raid sirens, the big ones were generally up on hills to service large populated areas, like this one near where I grew up. During the monthly(?) tests in the 1970s, those really put the fear of god into you.

Where I live now, there was a small siren similar to this one. They used to test that one regularly from the early 1980s (when I moved here) up until around the fall of the Berlin Wall (if I recall correctly).

Hmmm, perhaps US Civil Defense and CONELRAD might be an interesting post.

Now, back to foghorns...
posted by foonly at 6:52 AM on March 31, 2012

"[Tony] Schwartz's idea was that each city has not only its visual signature -- for example, New York's Empire State Building or San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge or Washington's Capitol dome -- but also its sound signature. For the American Airlines city of San Francisco, the signature sound was obviously trolley cars and foghorns off the Bay. Schwartz, with his agoraphobia, had never been to San Francisco. He did, however, know a New York street person named Moondog, a shambling, grimy character with long hair, sandals, and a sackcloth robe, who carried bells, drums, cooking utensils, and his other life's possessions on his back as he wandered down Sixth Avenue. One foggy spring day Schwartz heard the Hudson River foghorns, got in touch with Moondog, and invited him to the studio. Moondog played his bells, and Schwartz mixed their tinkle with the bellow of the foghorns recorded by a rooftop microphone. The result was a San Francisco sound -- trolley bells against foghorns -- that conformed to what listeners already expected and felt about San Francisco. 'It was a beautiful series,' Schwartz recalls with genuine fondness." -- The Spot: The Rise of Political Advertising on Television, Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates, 1984
posted by blucevalo at 7:45 AM on March 31, 2012

I actually honeymooned there for a couple nights in July of 2002. It is, or was, also a bed and breakfast in addition to a working light station. The setting was great for the occasion.
posted by pmbuko at 10:10 PM on March 31, 2012

They've decommissioned the foghorns in Ireland, which breaks my heart. I love the sound of a foghorn, having grown up near the sea and always hearing it. When Ireland had its big snow the last few years, the foghorns would go off, and it was lovely to be outside in the falling snow with the mournful sound coming....
posted by piearray at 4:02 AM on April 1, 2012

« Older Paintballing with Hezbollah.   |   The MAVS are coming(not the NBA team) Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments