The sound-producing device called a siren was invented by the French physicist Charles Cagniard de la Tour (1777-1859) in 1819. His invention determined the frequency, or number of vibrations per second, corresponding to a sound of any pitch. Sirens are now used only as signals.
In Greek mythology, Sirens (from sirenes, meaning «entanglers») lived on an island off southern Italy. They were mythical monsters, half woman and half bird, who, by their sweet singing, lured mariners to destruction on the rocks surrounding their island. And if they were not shipwrecked, the sweetness of the singing was such that the listeners forgot everything and died of hunger.
Two experiences reported by the poets proved the ingenuity of man over the beguiling nymphs. In the first, Odysseus, returning from the Trojan War, skirted the island, stuffed wax into the ears of his sailors, and lashed himself to a mast. With the crew thus secured, the vessel sailed on until Odysseus could no longer hear the singing of the Sirens. In the second tale, the Argonauts, heroic sailors of the Argo (the ship Jason had built to help him fetch the Golden Fleece), sailed the ship dangerously near the beach on which the Sirens were singing. Aboard was the celebrated poet Orpheus, whose golden lyre enchanted everyone who heard his music. He played his lyre, thus preventing the crew from hearing the Sirens’s deadly songs. The Argonauts sailed safely by the Sirens’s habitat. Defeated, the nymphs threw themselves into the sea and became rocks.
A siren suit is a one-piece, lined, warm garment on the lines of a boiler suit, and was sometimes worn in London during the air raids of World War II. It was much favored by Winston Churchill and so named from its being slipped on over night clothes at the first wail of the siren.