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Today, the sound of a whistle in sport is ubiquitous. There's not a Saturday morning goes by on rugby and soccer fields and netball courts around New Zealand without the insistent ''peep'' punctuating the action.
But it wasn't always like that _ 126 years ago, in 1884 in Christchurch, 27-year-old sports journalist William Atack did something that changed the face, or at least the sound, of sport forever.
Previously, referees had used their voice to control games. Arthur Swan, official historian for the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, says:
''When both sides were appealing, the voice had to be exercised loudly and Atack found it exhausting. Thinking it over one day while refereeing a rugby game, his fingers strayed into a waistcoat pocket where they encountered a dog whistle. The inspiration occurred to him that it would be a fine thing to use a whistle to stop the game. The next time he refereed, he called the teams together and they agreed to play to the whistle. It was a great success and was adopted all over the country.''
Swan writes that while sports historians differ on the date rugby referees were officially permitted to use a whistle it is widely believed that Atack, far away from his game's lawmakers in England, was the first to actually use it. At the edge of the world, rules and long-accepted common practice meant less than an effective solution to a vexing problem.
Atack's grandson Lawrence, 76, a retired farmer now living in Masterton, has accumulated material on his illustrious forbear. His memories are sketchy _ William Atack died in 1945, at the age of 88, when Lawrence was just 12 _ but some things stand out.
William Atack used to wear a hat with a card proclaiming ''Press'' in the band and he used that to gain entry to all sorts of places off-limits to the general public. When the famed barque Pamir came to Wellington it was a grand occasion, with the Prime Minister and Governor-General scheduled to visit. The public were being kept well clear, but William Atack brushed past the security people with his young charges, touching the ''Press'' badge as he did so, and not a word was said.
Another memory was William Atack using the hook on his umbrella to keep young companions in line while out on a walk.
Born in England in 1857, William Harrington Atack (pronounced ay-tack) travelled with his parents to New Zealand two years later, aboard the Cornwall, Swan reports. He had an elder sister who died during the voyage.
An excellent student, Atack won the Canterbury Provincial Government scholarship at the age of nine. A year later, he won the Provincial Open Scholarship, attending Christ's College from 1870-74, where he was the senior Somes Scholar in 1873 and head of school in 1874.
He excelled at rugby and cricket and rose to represent Canterbury at the provincial level in cricket. Although he won a university scholarship, he elected instead to go into journalism, joining the Lyttelton Times in 1875. An accomplished sports reporter, Atack covered Shaw and Lillywhite's 1882 England cricket team tour with the distinction of representing Canterbury against them.
Atack moved to Wellington in 1886 (two years before Lawrence Atack's father was born) as general manager of the United Press Association (later the New Zealand Press Association) where he remained for 44 years, stamping his personality and high standards on the nation's news source.
It was during this time that he visited San Francisco and found he needed to post a letter. As irascible as ever, when the bellboy dithered over post times, Atack walked down the road and posted it himself then returned to find the hotel flattened by the 1906 earthquake.
William Harrington Atack's story is told in the book No 8 Wire, The Best of Kiwi Ingenuity by John Bridges and David Downs.
No story about referees' whistles would be complete without the involvement of Masterton's own top whistle-blower, former mayor Bob Francis, who has officiated at more than 92 first-class rugby matches, including tests.
In his final term as an International Rugby Board referees selector _ a position that will end with the upcoming World Cup _ Francis was fascinated by a story he had not heard before.
He notes that while the whistle was introduced to make the ref's job easier, in the close-quarter encounters of today's game communication is increasingly important. Refs have a lot more to say these days, he says.
But when all else fails, he adds, there's the trusty Acme Thunderer attached to his wrist.