HISTORIC SOUND

Industrial Beaver County

Towboat Aliquippa (1914 – 1952)

THIS IS ONLY A TEST
 
During the late morning of September 14, 2022, the Beaver County Emergency Management team reminded us that suffering through a nuclear disaster is still a very real possibility for a lot of us within ten miles—or more depending which way the wind blows–of the Beaver Valley Atomic Power Station.
 
We were about to experience another emergency siren test covering three states, but specifically Beaver, Hancock, and Columbiana counties.
That’s a lot of territory to alert, so how loud are these sirens, anyway?
 
The Federal Signal Company states that its Equinox model siren produces 70dB of sound at a little more than a mile away; at that distance the wailing warning will seem as loud as your washing machine. At 2.1 miles, the siren produces 60dB–that’s as loud as a typical conversation in a restaurant or office.
(If you’re curious, the loudest warning sirens ever produced were made by Chrysler during the Cold War using the 180 horsepower FirePower Hemi V8 engine. It could be heard up to 25 miles away.)
 
TECH NOTES
 
The Equinox wails at a frequency of about 500Hz. That’s a fairly low tone by design that, unlike higher frequencies, packs a much more powerful energy punch, reaches longer distances, and can even travel over and into river valleys better than higher pitched sounds.
The video provided here is interesting and educational. You not only get to hear a complete siren test, but you can also see the technical, acoustical magic behind the sound.
 
The orange graphic in this video is called a spectrogram. The blue overlay is the waveform. These data show us the main or fundamental pitch at the low end of the frequency scale (~500Hz), but note a series of regularly spaced higher frequency bands on the spectrogram (bright orange bands). These are called harmonics, and they first appear above and twice the frequency of the fundamental 500Hz, then three times it, then four times it, five times it., etc.  Heard together, these harmonics combine to give the siren its distinctive sound.
 
The blue waveform overlaid on the orange spectrogram gives us a sense of the quieter and louder oscillations. As the rotating siren cone faces us, the sound is louder; as it moves away from us it gets relatively quieter. Although this Equinox siren sample is a steady or continuous tone, the siren cone actually rotates 3 times per minute utilizing principles of directional sound and the Doppler effect to alter the siren’s wailing just enough to get our attention.
 
SO, WHY DOES ANY OF THIS MATTER?
 
It’s not that all this technical mumbo-jumbo is very important, but we should take note that this nuclear emergency siren is actually a remarkable thing and a hallmark of our region. We share this specific kind of alert system with only 55 other communities near atomic power plants.
 
Although most often we don’t hear these sirens except for tests, they are nonetheless part of Beaver County’s acoustic heritage and historical soundscape—something that far too many local historians ignore.
 
The sound of these very loud and disturbing emergency sirens–God forbid we should ever hear them in real time–is to alert us to the dangers of a nearby nuclear disaster. I challenge anyone to listen to the entire 3+ minutes of this test siren. Endure it as much as you can. Think about what you would do if you heard this siren in real time. Where would you go? How fast could you reach your family? Where’s the iodine?
 
After hearing this we might better appreciate the everyday sound of silence we take for granted—one, two, or up to ten miles from the nuclear disaster we hope never comes to Beaver County.

Who's Listening to History?

Welcome to our online exhibit, Historic Sound: Industrial Beaver County.

In this innovative presentation, we explore the sounds of industry, which is generally defined as the processing of raw materials and the manufacturing of goods in factories, mills, or other such facilities. But here we also include agriculture and transportation as part of our complex of industrial activity.

We might even consider as important the sounds of “stuff” created by industry.  The brief sound montage presented here is a sonic demonstration of things in use–ordinary sounds from daily life that we tend to take for granted until presented to us as part of the historical record of our material culture. We explore this topic a little more in our section, “Listen to History.”

In our “Soundscapes” room you will have a chance to hear examples of our industrial landscape–past and present.  Some of our sonic samples are a cacophony; swirling around you are loud and chaotic soundscapes of machinery in motion.  Listen to the tradesmen cutting, hammering, milling, and joining materials together.  In other sound clips, you will hear a work done in more bucolic settings, such as on the farm, in the fields, and along the rivers.

Our “Recording History” section will give you a sense of how soundscapes are recorded, and how you can become a local history recordist to help capture, preserve, and share the soundscapes of our lives.

And finally, our “Reading Room” is where you will find a wide range of resources for further research and study.

Sounds of things from the 1970s

What's Inside

This exhibit and the Little Beaver Historical Society Podcast are productions of The Social Voice Project. We welcome factual corrections and meaningful clarifications regarding the content on this page.