“A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” -Douglas Adams
Question #92625 posted on 09/26/2019 7:49 a.m.

Dear 100 Hour Board,

Tonight I have been putting a lot -- nay, an unnatural amount -- of thought into the history of sirens on emergency vehicles. It seems natural that as traffic increased after the advent of early automobiles people had the ideas for stop signs and traffic lights to make things go more smoothly. At what point did some person go, "Hey, should we give those guys the power to use their horns with legal impunity so they can get where they are going?" Who decided that? I need a history of the development of sirens in early automobile history and you folks seemed like just the ones to ask.

-I am incredibly high right now


Dear High Flyer, 

Obviously the history of sirens and noisemakers predates that of cars. In fact, Wikipedia explains that the siren seems to be invented in the late 1790s by John Robinson. Originally, it was powered by the pipes of an organ. However, these early sirens were meant to be used as instruments, not really as "alerting" items. Some improvements were made over time, which you can read about here. Eventually, it was fitted with a horn to amplify the noise. 

Most early forms of emergency vehicles were outfitted with bells on the front of them to alert motorists they were coming. Eventually, air sirens and airhorns were invented and used, which is wear the vintage wail you may think of comes from. Now, they have the electronic sirens that have different types of sounds that can mean different things. There's the typical wail that they use when navigating to an emergency, but there are also shorter sounds that can be used to get someone's attention. 

There is also a new development that allows police cars to interrupt the FM radio signals of all cars within a short range. Your car can't refuse the signal, because it's an "emergency signal." Additionally, apparently there is also something called a "Rumbler" that can emit low frequency sounds that you can feel instead of just hear. I don't know how I feel about that. Read more about Police car sirens and such here

In any case, it's actually pretty rare that cops abuse their sirens to maneuver through traffic just because they feel like it. Honestly, I'm grateful they have sirens and that laws that allow emergency vehicles through traffic because if anything ever happened, I'd rather they get to me as fast as possible, not get stuck at red lights behind fools on their cell phones and other average joes.