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crumb trail: Home >> Whistle Online >> Archives >> May 3, 2004

New steam whistle is a blast from the past


Lea McLees
Georgia Tech Research Institute

Georgia Tech without the hourly voice of the whistle would be akin to a class roll without George P. Burdell, a less feisty Buzz, or a campus without Junior’s.

Tech Power Plant Superintendent Harold Cash knows that, which is why he became concerned toward the end of 2002 when the bell of the current industrial steam whistle cracked during a football game. He used his last spare part to fix the existing whistle.

“We didn’t have any spare parts left, and we also go through periods when people ‘borrow’ the whistle,” Cash said. “If they had borrowed the whistle at that point, we’d be in a fix.”

So Cash became a man with a mission, one he fulfilled during Spring 2003 — to get Georgia Tech an appropriate, back-up, industrial steam whistle. This was not an easy task. Most companies that make steam whistles have gone out of business, and the ones that are still around may charge $10,000 per device, Cash said.

Then one day while taking a management class at the Alumni House, he glimpsed a battered but authentic Georgia Tech whistle from the 1900s on display.

“I thought, ‘You know, that is as close to the original Tech whistle as you can get,’” he recalled. “We don’t want to change the tradition or the sound or anything — we want to have a whistle people are used to.”

  Dennis Brown stands with the new whistle, fabricated in his shop.

Dennis Brown stands with the new steam whistle, fabricated in GTRI’s Machine Services Department. With replacements rare and expensive, staff copied the design of one of the whistles the Institute used in the early 1900s.

He asked Dennis Brown, manager of the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) Machine Services Department, to create the whistle for him. Brown’s shops have designed, fabricated, built or modified parts for everything from a special antenna for the airlock on the International Space Station to parts for the Olympic torches made for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. The shop also creates research and functional items for students, faculty and staff on campus to use in research or on the job, as well as for those at other schools around the state.

“Dennis and his group have manufactured many replacement parts for us,” Cash said. “The last renovation of Georgia Tech’s steam plant was in 1952. A lot of the equipment we need for repairs is no longer made, or the companies have gone out of business.”

The designers and machinists in GTRI Machine Services measured and photographed the whistle on display in the Alumni House. Because the bell of the whistle is missing, they also studied photos and patterns of whistles from that era in an effort to recreate the part.

“In the past, the chambers of whistles were cast from molten metal. The newer ones are welded construction and a lot of them would crack from the stress of the sound vibration,” Brown said. “We designed this one from two bars of solid brass. Using solid billets reduced the need for weld joints, so the whistle is less likely to crack. Plus, we wanted to be as traditional as possible with the whistle we were building.”

The machinists in the shop used computer numerically controlled (CNC) lathes and mills and a new four-axis, computer-controlled wire electrical discharge machine (EDM) to create the whistle. They also treated the surface of the whistle chemically to slow oxidation and tarnishing. Brown said his whole team was proud to be part of the project.

GTRI’s Machine Services Department  

GTRI’s Machine Services Department includes, from left, Michael Martin, Charles Twiggs, Stanley Sheffield, Dennis Brown, Josh Bagwell, Dennis Denney and Jeff Wilkie.


“We enjoyed doing this, especially because we were able to add to Georgia Tech’s heritage,” he said.

The gleaming new brass whistle is 17 inches tall, 5.5 inches in outside diameter, and weighs about 25 pounds. It cost just more than $9,000. With the research and design complete, future versions will be even less expensive.

The new industrial steam whistle has three chambers, compared to the one-chamber whistle the Tech community hears now. However, it is, without question, more traditional.

The new whistle is being installed this month — and Tech will then be back on track with a blast from the past.



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