Page last updated at 08:56 GMT, Sunday, 24 May 2009 09:56 UK

Company whistles through history

By Bob Walker
BBC 5 Live Weekend Breakfast


Managing Director Simon Topman on an Acme whistle used on the Titanic

For more than 100 years it's been the sound that's brought both triumph and despair to millions around the world.

It was heard at the culmination of England's greatest sporting triumph. It rang out across the shattered wasteland of No Man's Land as tens of thousands walked to their deaths. And it also played a part in our worst maritime disaster.

And on Wednesday night it's likely to break the hearts of fans following one of the sides in the season's most important football game.

Acme whistles have been made in Birmingham since 1870 and even in these difficult financial times the company is still going strong. They moved into their factory on Barr Street a century ago. They currently make around six million whistles, sirens and hooters every year.

They still have the original bench at which the founder, Joseph Hudson, made the very first police whistle in the 1880s, replacing wooden rattles that the "peelers" had previously used to sound the alert.

And they also have some of the original Acme Thunderers used for decades by football referees.

"The very first soccer whistles were made in 1884," says Simon Topman, Acme's owner and a man with a clear passion for whistles and their history.

"Joseph Hudson's great invention was to pop the pea into the whistle and so the familiar trill of the Acme Thunderer was heard."

He tried to sell the invention to Aston Villa, his local team, who weren't interested so he went across the Midlands to Nottingham Forest who were more enthusiastic. The novelty soon caught on and referees no longer had to signal foul play by waving handkerchiefs.

Triumph and tragedy

To most England football fans their finest hour was signalled with the words "they think it's all over..." but it was an Acme Thunderer used by Swiss referee Gottfried Dienst which brought the 1966 World Cup final to an end. The whistle now resides in a football museum in Switzerland.

These days referees are more likely to wield a different Acme whistle: the Tornado 2000. It gives a much more piercing sound and was originally designed to be used at the Ajax stadium in Amsterdam, reputed to be the loudest stadium in the world.

Acme supply whistles to FIFA referees and their Tornado 2000 is almost certain to be used in the Champions League final between Manchester United and Barcelona.

The factory on Barr Street still gives the company a traditional feel and there remains a large element of hand crafting used to make all the products.

However methods have been updated with the recession perversely giving them a helping hand. One new pressing machine should have cost £75,000, but Simon managed to get it for £5,000.

But some of the original machines are still there and helped the company cash in on the huge success of the Titanic movie. At one point in the film Kate Winslet blows on a Thunderer to attract rescuers.

Acme did indeed supply whistles to the White Star Line and it's likely that the sound would have been used to assemble passengers at the lifeboats, or to call out for help across the water as the Titanic sank.

Acme used the original tools to sell make and sell thousands of special Titanic whistles on the back of the film's popularity.


Simon Topman shows us the selection of whistles still in production

Acme whistles also played their part in the tragedy of World War I. More than a million were issued to infantrymen and the sound of the police-style whistles was the signal for the troops to leave the relative safety of the trenches and advance in the face of machine gun fire.

At one point they ran out of brass and instead used recycled biscuit tins to make the whistle cylinders.

But it's for happier times and sporting occasions that Acme whistles will be more fondly remembered.

On Wednesday Simon will be carefully listening as the Champions League kicks off.

He said: "People take the mickey out of me now. Working here you become the kind of anorak who listens to the matches on the telly and identifies which type of Thunderer or Tornado is being used, the size, the make the model number that the guy has got.

"Everyone else thinks I'm a lunatic so I've stopped telling them. I just smile inwardly."

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