Object lesson No 40 Bells

24th November 2000 at 00:00
Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, wrote John Donne, the poet. Sound advice, as it happens, because the answer could take days. Bells first tolled for Bronze Age people, who made them out of a newly discovered substance - metal. (In China and Greece they had this technology sussed by 3000bc; rustic Britain needed another 1,000 years.) With plenty of time to ring the changes on the basic upturned bin shape, many designs exist. Western bells have clappers and thick "sound bows" round the bottom. They also swing. Asian bells are struck on the outside, lack sound bows and are not swingers.

Whatever their shape, bells have tolled in alarm, in celebration, and in worship. They have told people the time, invoked curses and lifted spells. They have protected animals and buildings. Their chimes punctuate our lives even now, marking birth and mourning death.

The ancient Chinese, masters at casting elliptical temple bells, were also the first to make music with them. They saw this as a way to communicate with the spirit world. For Catholics, bells were symbols of paradise and the voice of God, while the Russian Orthodox Church used them to talk to Himself directy. For this task, both onerous and sonorous, the Russians thought big. Too big.

Tsar Kolokol III (King Bell III to you and me) was the world's biggest. Cast in 1735 in Moscow, it was eight metres in diameter and weighed 180 tonnes - roughly equivalent to 22 African elephants. Alas, the tsar was the star of a silent tragedy. It was broken by fire before it had been rung.

In Europe, matters campanologous had been left to the monks - and their first attempts resembled cow bells. Bronze casting did not really catch on until the eighth century though by the 10th most British churches had a set of swinging bells.

Traditional British bell-ringing, which really developed in the 15th century, consists of between five and 12 bells rung in sequences called changes. In ringing a peal, no bell moves more than one place forward or backward in the ringing order in each successive change. If you imagine the bells are numbered, a peal of three bells would consist of six changes: 1-2-3, 2-3-1, 2-1-3, 3-1-2, 1-3-2, 3-2-1. This takes a few seconds. A complete peal of 12 bells (480 million changes) would take about 40 years. So hurry up and grab a rope, will you...

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