Danger Sound Klaxon! The Horn that Changed History - Matthew F. Jordan. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2023


By Alexandra Supper


Danger Sound Klaxon! by Matthew Jordan presents the tumultuous and intriguing cultural history of the Klaxon horn. The story unfolds roughly chronologically over the course of its seven core chapters and is presented almost like a good detective story. The introductory chapter quite vaguely promises to investigate the “rise and fall of the Klaxon automobile horn” and briefly announces the main cast, an intriguing set of characters including “creative inventors, ambitious American tycoons, advertising revolutionaries, ruthless lawyers, politicians, novelists, poets, songwriters and soldiers in the trenches of the Western Front” (p. 10). If you are sufficiently enthralled already, you might want to stop reading this review right here and go straight to the source, where the story is told with very little foreboding of its many plot twists. It is harder to avoid spoilers in an academic book review, especially of a book which is so “plot-driven” rather than theoretically oriented, so I will provide a brief synopsis of the book’s central argument here.


Jordan, who is trained as a historian but works in the Media Studies department of Penn State University, draws on a wide and sundry list of sources, including but not limited to print ads, newspaper clippings, letters from the trenches and song lyrics, which are brought in to support or at least illustrate the book’s claims. While he occasionally nods to the wider global reach of the Klaxon brand, the main empirical focus is on the markets in the US, UK, and Western Europe, during the first few decades of the 20thcentury. 


At the start of the curious story of the Klaxon horn, we encounter a plethora of different technological devices that promise to solve, through acoustic means, the problem of how to safely share public space in the age of the automobile. The Klaxon enters the scene as a particularly noisy player, promising to cut through the noises of traffic where more subtle and musical sonic signaling devices would face the risk of being drowned out. Jordan only briefly introduces us to the inventor of the Klaxon horn, Miller Reese Hutchison, who tapped into the conveniences of new technological possibilities, such as electricity and a push-button design. Considerably more space in the book is dedicated to discussing the innovative marketing and callous legal strategies of the Lovell-McConnel company, who brought the Klaxon horn to the market in 1908. Through ground-breaking advertising techniques that showed specific traffic situations in which only the use of a Klaxon (as the loudest, shrillest horn on the market) could avert death and disaster, the choice for this device was established as a civic responsibility – without ever requiring drivers to compromise on speed. A standardized aesthetic strategy was coupled with attempts to tie in with regional issues; and in parallel, a team of lawyers were driving legal battles on the terrain of patent law, contract law, ordinance law, and traffic law. These, Jordan suggests, helped the Klaxon to gain not only market dominance, but also the status of a generic term (comparable to what Kodak became to photographic film and Kleenex to tissues). Yet the success proved to be relatively short-lived. The company expanded not only to global markets, but also to noisy environments beyond the automobile, for instance to signal shift changes in factories or to warn of a gas attack in the trenches of World War I. While this increased the short-term profit margin for the brand, Jordan shows, it also gradually affected the company’s control of its own sonic branding and the cultural associations of the sound, which found increasing resistance from a fast-growing anti-noise movement. Against this backdrop, by the 1920s, the ear-piercing noise of the Klaxon was considered less socially acceptable than in previous, not only for war veterans (who now associated the Klaxon’s sound with harrowing and traumatic memories), but also for the public at large. Neither the marketing efforts harking back to the Klaxon’s golden era, nor attempts to redesign the device’s sound to become softer and subtler, were able to secure the Klaxon’s market dominance in this shifting context. At the same time, the importance of auditory signals lessened while visual signaling, urban planning, and traffic management systems became more important in efforts to ensure road safety.


Jordan bases this story on a great number and variety of primary sources and anecdotes. He also engages existing secondary literature, especially relating to the fields of sound studies and automobile/mobility history. The book fits in neatly with existing knowledge and arguments in these fields, e.g. about the emergence of anti-noise movements, changing cultural associations, standardization efforts and changing mobility patterns. In its core chapters, the book also gestures towards scholarship in other fields, for instance the history of advertising (where the Lovell-McConnell company is presented as a ground-breaking innovator) or even trauma psychology, but the embedding in existing scholarship in those fields does not appear quite as systematic. The main target group of the book, then, seems to be readers interested in sound studies and automobile history, who are likely to be sympathetic not only to the book’s attention to historical detail, but also to its broader arguments. In particular, the book shows how the cultural meanings of sounds are never a direct result of their acoustic properties, but always subject to negotiation and contestation. Jordan also provides a critical commentary on techno-utopian thinking, technocratic ideologies, and the circular dynamics of techno-fixes, in which social problems brought about by one technology are promised to be solved by ever-newer technological devices. These arguments, which resonate widely in the field of sound studies scholarship, are made and illustrated in a compelling manner here, on the basis of a fascinating patchwork of historical sources.