To Make A Noise - The Story of Bells
The word bell comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "to bellow" or to "make a noise."
Bells in war and peace, fire and flood, have long been useful because their voices could be heard far and wide. However, bells can make something besides noise. They can make music.
When they are placed high in a tower, their clear notes float out and down so beautifully that poetry and song are full of praise for them, as in the line:
"Think, when bells do chime, 'tis angels' music."
Bells of some kind were known in China more than two thousand years before the Christian Era, but it is quite certain that bells as we know them today, were the product of the Christian Church.
The earliest that have been found were not cast in one piece, but made from plates riveted together. Such bells were rectangular in shape.
A very old bell is preserved in Belfast, Ireland. It is known from its inscription as "the bell of Saint Patrick's will."
Tiny, as bells go, it is only six inches high and five inches wide. It is decorated with gems and with gold and silver tracery. The dates on it are 1091 and 1105.
African Bell Maker
The Largest Bells
In the thirteenth century, bell founders, many of them in monasteries, began to make large bells and place them high above the ground in towers. Such bells were sounded by striking them with a rod or with a metal clapper hung within the bell and left free to swing back and forth with its motion.
The year 1400 saw the casting in Paris of a successful bell that weighed more than six tons. It was thought enormous at the time, yet it does not cut much of a figure among the world's big bells today.
The ;largest bell known of old days is the Russian "Tsar Kolokol" of Moscow, weighing more than thirty-two times (about two hundred tons) as much as the big bell of Paris just mentioned.
The history of the "Tsar Kolokol" is disappointing, however, since it was never rung, has a big piece weighing eleven tons broken out of it and is used as a public building, instead of as a bell.
Resting on a special base, it forms a good sized room, nineteen feet high and twenty-one feet wide.
A pagoda in upper Myanmar houses a bell of eighty-seven tones. Also, in the city of Peking, China there is a great bell weighing fifty-three tons. Other bells of the world are perhaps better known, such as Big Ben in the Houses of Parliament, London. However they are nowhere near these giants in size.
Russia also possesses the biggest bell in actual use, a brazen monster of one hundred and ten tons.
The most famous bell in America, the Liberty Bell, is a mere pygmy in comparison. It was originally cast in 1751 in England by Thomas Lister, of London. It weighs about a ton. The Assembly of the Province of Pennsylvania directed that the following words be cast on the outside of the bell:
"By order of the Assembly of the Province of Pennsylvania for the State House in the City of Philadelphia. Proclaim Liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof. Lev. XXV, 10."
The bell arrived at Philadelphia late in August 1752, and was cracked in testing. It was melted down and recast bypass and Stow of Philadelphia, who added one and a half ounces of American copper for each pound of the original metal in order to make it less brittle.
In spite of this attempt, the bell cracked again on testing and was recast a second time by Pass and Stow.
The second attempt was successful, and the bell was hung in the tower of the State House on June 7, 1753.
On the new bell, the quotation from Leviticus was placed above the other inscription instead of under it, as the original. Also the name and date, "Pass and Stow, Philadelphia, MDCCLIII," were added.
The bells most historic ringing was on the occasion of the formal proclamation of the Declaration of Independence, July 8, 1776.
In later years the bell was rung on every festival and at the time of every important event until July 8, 1835, when it cracked as it tolled while the body of Chief Justice John Marshall was being taken from Philadelphia to Virginia for burial.
As mentioned previously, ancient bells, were made in pieces and then riveted together. However, the bells of modern times are cast in one piece from molten metal. This metal is known as "bell metal" and is a form of bronze.
It consists of a mixture of copper and tin in the proportion of about three parts copper to one part tin.
There is more tin in bells of high pitch. Bell metal not only gives a fine, full tone, but also withstands hard usage and bad weather conditions indefinitely.
It is commonly thought that the presence of gold or silver in a bell gives it added beauty of tone. This is not a fact. A solid bell of gold, for instance, would sound about as well as one of solid lead.
The Construction of a Bell
In bell casting, two molds of baked clay are constructed -- one solid, to form the open interior of the bell, the other hollow, following the curved shape of the outside surface.
The bell metal, heated until it will flow, is poured between the two molds. After the metal has cooled enough to set, the molds are removed.
A really big bell will need several weeks to cool completely.
When bell founders had mastered their art sufficiently, it became possible to make bells not only of good quality, but of accurate pitch.
Then, the custom developed of hanging groups of bells in the towers of churches and important public buildings. On these groups of bells, simple tunes could be played as could a system of musical figures called "changes."
Changes are not so much tunes as musical patterns, one pattern differing so little from another that it is possible to ring many changes on a very few bells.
For example, only six changes are possible on three bells. However, on five bells, one hundred and twenty changes can be rung. On seven bells, a staggering five thousand and forty bell changes are available.
A set of twelve tuned bells may not seem very large, but it is the maximum number used in change-ringing. The reason is that 479,001,600 changes can be run on twelve bells, requiring thirty-seven years and three hundred and fifty-five days of continuous ringing.
Of course, this is merely a theoretical possibility and has never been tried. Nevertheless, in the UK, where change-ringing has been developed into a national specialty, expert ringers require many hours to run through an elaborate set of changes.
The Art of Change Ringing
While the art of change-ringing by hand was spreading throughout England, the chiming of tuned bells by mechanical means grew popular elsewhere in Europe, especially in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Tower clocks were furnished with bells to chime the quarter hours in a very pretty style and at the hour quite a tune was played by automatic machinery.
This machinery consisted usually of a revolving cylinder or drum, timed so that it worked a series of wires that were attached to small hammers that struck the bells in proper sequences to give both rhythm and melody.
Return Of Russian Bells
If You'd Like To Know More!
- Blagovest Bells History of Russian Bells (Lukianov)
- Blagovest Bells World\'s Three Biggest Bells
- Change Ringing? What's That?
- History of bells
Bells are used all over the world for everything from musical entertainment to funeral rites.
- History of Bells antique bells
Here is a brief history of bells.
- Liberty Bell
Liberty Bell history, pictures, timeline
- Philadelphia Change Ringers
- The Mathematics of Change Ringing