Tell Time Using a Ship's Bell Clock
In the age of the great sailing ships, mechanical clocks were uncommon on board vessels and sailors lacked pocket watches. To help the sailors tell what time it was, a system using the ship’s bell was developed to indicate the hour and the changes of the watch. The shipboard day was divided into six, 4-hour “watches”, or duty periods, starting at noon. The bell was rung every half hour of the watch starting with one bell at 12:30 p.m. and adding a blow at each half hour so an even number of bells was struck on the hour, and an odd number on the half hour. This sequence continued up to 4:00 p.m. when eight bells were struck, signaling the end of the watch. A new group of sailors would come on duty and the sequence would start over again with one bell at 4:30 p.m. continuing until 8 bells at 8:00 p.m., and then again until 8 bells at midnight.
A sailor on duty would hear the following
He could tell the time by listening to the bells and knew just how long before he would be relieved by the next watch. Then the sequence would start over for the next watch:
"Eight bells" in nautical parlance means "finished", as in the end of the watch. You may also see it in a sailor's obituary ("He was called to the final eight bells") or in a ship's decommissioning ("It rang its last eight bells").
The one other exception to the sequence was at midnight on New Year’s Eve when 16 bells would be struck signifying 8 bells for the old year and 8 for the new year.
The exception in true nautical time was the dog watch, which was between 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. This watch was divided (or dogged) into two, 2-hour watches to allow the crew to take their evening meal. At the end of the first dog watch (6:00 p.m.) only four bells were struck. Then the bells were struck as 6:30 p.m. one bell, 7:00 p.m. two bells, 7:30 p.m. three bells, and at 8:00 p.m. eight bells. The dog watches also made an odd number of watches in the 24 hours, giving each sailor a different watch every day so nobody was stuck with an unfavorable watch all the time.
As mechanical clocks became more reliable this bell pattern was transferred into ship’s bell clocks. Most “domestic” ship’s bell clocks do not denote true nautical time because they delete the dog watch sequence. But the clocks are prized for their elegant ability to strike the time in a pattern of pairs for easier counting, with the odd bells at the end of the sequence. So, for example, at 2:00 p.m. you will hear ding-ding, and at 2:30 p.m. you will hear ding-ding (pause) ding.
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