Whitney Russell
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The Evolution of the Car Horn

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old-fashioned car horn
Car horns looked a lot more basic in the early 20th century
Photo: Jojo Hasilla via Pixabay

Sometimes it’s easy to take basic vehicle parts, like the brakes, gear selector, or auto-locks, for granted. Car horns are another part that’s easy to gloss over — but this device has a fascinating history that deserves some attention. Here’s a brief glimpse of how the car horn has evolved over the years.

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Early days

vintage car horn
Vintage car horn designs sometimes went a bit overboard
Photo: Magyarország via Pixabay

In the time of the horseless carriage, drivers used bells, whistles, and hand-squeezed horns to alert pedestrians and other drivers of their presence on the road. These manual methods of alert signals were popular until around 1908, the year that Miller Reese Hutchison patented the Klaxon horn. (Bonus fact: Hutchison later became the chief engineer for Thomas Edison’s laboratory.) You could power this device in one of two ways — motor-powered batteries or hand-cranking.

Interestingly enough, honking at pedestrians was considered to be a polite driving behavior in the early 1900s. “You were expected to honk your horn if you were coming up on pedestrians, to let them know you were bounding down the street. You’d be thought rude if you weren’t using your horn, which is the exact opposite of where we are today,” said Matt Anderson, curator for transportation at the Henry Ford museum.

From the 1930s and onward

The Klaxon horn was widely used until the 1930s when automakers started using electric car horns, according to Allstate. Since then, car horns haven’t changed all that much. Aftermarket parts suppliers like Bosch supply mainstream automakers like GM, Ford, and Subaru with horns for their vehicle lineups.

chevrolet steering wheel horn
Modern car horns are typically either disc horns or fanfare horns

Contemporary car horns come in three different categories: fanfare horns, disc horns, and compressor trumpets. Fanfare horns are the most harmonious sounding, while disc horns have a more metallic, tinny sound quality. Commercial vehicles like semi-trucks and buses typically use compressor trumpets.

For other ways that cars can use honking, check out this article on Nissan’s Rear Door Alert. Or spend a moment daydreaming about what car horns could sound like in the future.

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