There was a time when factory tours were plentiful — an entertaining and educational outing for families and school groups. It was always fascinating to be escorted behind the scenes to learn how a product was made.
Unfortunately, these excursions are now few and far between, which is why a trip to American Whistle Corp. is a special treat.
This company, founded in 1956 as Colsoff Manufacturing, prides itself on being the only manufacturer of metal whistles in the United States. The entire process — with the exception of the plating done in Rhode Island — takes place in a little warehouse in northern Columbus, off Huntley Road. You’ll learn how mechanical engineering turns raw material into a finished product and you’ll see one-of-a-kind machines — some old, some new — designed and built for this enterprise.
There are two great advantages to this particular tour: it’s less than an hour in length and there aren’t any age restrictions. As a result, your group is likely to include families — including toddlers. Wear comfortable shoes and be forewarned the building isn’t air-conditioned. Because it’s a short tour, you may want to combine it with a visit to other Columbus attractions: COSI, the Columbus Museum of Art or the Columbus Zoo.
Your $5 per person admission includes a shiny new American Classic whistle. These folks are smart. Because once you have a whistle in hand, you’ll feel compelled to start blowing it immediately so the whistles aren’t passed out until the end of the tour. When it’s a group of youngsters, the bag of whistles is given to the teacher or scout leader who determine when and how to distribute them. That’s good news for the bus driver!
Introducing: the whistle
It wasn’t surprising to learn that our enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, Mark Waterstreet, taught school for 22 years before becoming director of business development last year when the company changed hands. He begins each tour with a fascinating discussion of the whistle. It’s an item, let’s be honest, most of us haven’t really thought about so much.
With Waterstreet’s aid, though, you’ll begin to realize how important whistles are to our society and how many folks regularly make use of them — from police officers and sports referees to lifeguards and college students. You’ll hear testimonials about how whistles have saved lives.
“A woman who had been here eight years ago remembered from the tour to take her whistle with her when she went camping last summer in California,” Waterstreet told us. “One day she went for a hike with her mom and 4-year-old son. On the way back they found the trail blocked by a black bear. She took out her whistle and and blew it with all her might. It startled the bear and it took off running! She was very excited to come back and take her son on the tour to see where she had received the whistle that might have saved their lives!”
The Columbus company employs 10 full-time workers and produces about 5,000 whistles each day and close to 1 million each year. They are sent around the globe. Here’s where the official Boy Scout of America whistles are produced; they are also sent to organizations and corporations that distribute them to employees to promote safety. The NYPD orders 10,000 a year. Because the American Whistle Corp. is able to custom-imprint their whistles, they’re often used as advertising specialty items. Super Bowl officials have owned commemorative 24-karat gold whistles; Macy’s Parade grand marshals have owned them as well. After 9/11, the company donated whistles to volunteers who worked on recovery efforts.
“It’s required in Ohio to have a whistle when you’re on your boat, and scuba divers carry whistles hooked to their oxygen tanks,” Waterstreet said.
How it’s made
Despite the technology that’s changed so many other products in recent years, this little barrel-styled object has remained the same since it was invented in 1888 when Joseph Hudson entered a London competition to design a better way of attracting people’s attention. The police force had previously been relying on hand rattles; whistles were only thought of as musical instruments or toys.
Making a whistle is a lot more complex than you might think. Each one begins as coiled brass, continues through 30-ton presses and state-of-the-art soldering tables. The whistles then must be polished and plated. Some of these steps are done by sophisticated robotics; others by hands-on labor. How does the little ball get into each whistle? It’s a company secret that’s revealed near the end of the tour.
Although the whistles look like they’re steel, they are actually made of brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, then plated with with nickel. Your guide will explain brass is used because it offers the same tone and resonance qualities that make brass effective in musical instruments. “Brass has no iron in it so it can’t get rusty,” Waterstreet says proudly. “These whistles will last a lifetime.”
In addition to the nickel-plated whistles, you can also buy those plated with brass, bronze and even 24-karat gold. This is the only manufacturer of rubber Safe-T-Tips in the United States, a rubber cover that slips over the mouthpiece of the whistle and protects the teeth and lips from impact and extremes in temperature.
As you walk through the plant you’ll see the various presses and learn more about their functions. One of them dates back to 1905 and was converted to make whistles. The soldering machine is the newest piece of equipment and took two-and-a-half years to build. “It has increased production 300 percent,” Waterstreet informs us. After being soldered all of the whistles go to the “Vibratory,” a large rock-polishing machine. “We put about 3,000 whistles in at a time and run it for six hours until the whistles are super smooth.”
Gift shop and special tours
There’s a gift counter in the factory open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays. You’ll find everything from award whistles and lanyards to rubber Safe-T-Tips, T-shirts, mugs and magnets.
Ohio Grade 4 curriculum includes learning about what’s involved in the production of goods and services, so it’s an ideal tour for students and teachers.
For a peek inside the factory, check out “That Ohio Vibe” (https://www.thatohiovibe.com/story/columbus-and-whistle-factory). To learn about the science that’s behind making and blowing a whistle, check out the Science Channel’s “How It’s Made: Whistles” on You Tube.