Weatherwatch: piano notes key to Victorian inventor’s foghorn
Robert Foulis took inspiration from the unmuffled quality of bass notes passing through fog to devise a steam-run, dramatically low-note, lighthouse whistle
On 22 October 1854 the New Brunswick Morning News described a new life-saving invention: the steam whistle fog alarm. A chain of lighthouses was safeguarding shipping off the Canadian coast but in foggy conditions their lights were invisible. Fog bells could not be heard at long distances, and cannon signals were expensive and labour intensive.
The steam whistle was invented by Robert Foulis, a Scot who studied engineering but worked as a portrait painter. Foulis had been walking home on a foggy night and heard his daughter playing the piano. He noticed how fog muffled the high notes but the low notes carried clearly.