Sunday, December 30, 2007


Bells have a centuries long tradition of varied use in the navies and merchant fleets of the world. They have been used for signaling, keeping time, and providing alarm. Their functional and ceremonial uses have made them a symbol of considerable significance to the United States Navy and merchant ships.

Bells for warning and alarms
The sounding of a ship's bell found a natural application as a warning signal to other vessels in poor visibility and fog. In 1676 one Henry Teonage serving as a chaplain in the British Mediterranean Fleet recorded , "so great a fog that we were fain to ring our bells, beat drums, and fire muskets often to keep us from falling foul one upon another". Ringing a ship's bell in fog became customary. In 1858, British Naval Regulations made it mandatory in that function. Today, maritime law requires all ships to carry an efficient bell.

American ships of the Revolutionary War period and our early national years adopted many of the practices and traditions of the British Royal Navy, including the use of bells. In 1798, Paul Revere cast a bell weighing 242 pounds for the frigate Constitution, also known today by its nickname "Old Ironsides".

It is of interesting to note that the use of a ship's bell contributed to the richest single prize captured by the American Navy during the War of Independence. While a Continental Squadron under Commodore Whipple lay-to, wrapped in Newfoundland fog in a July morning in 1779, the sound of ships' bells and an occasional signal gun could be heard a short distance off. When the fog lifted the Americans discovered that they had fallen in with the richly laden enemy Jamaica Fleet. Ten ships were captured as prizes, which together with their cargo were valued at more than a million dollars.

Bells for timekeeping
Before the advent of the chronometer time at sea was measured by the trickle of sand through a half - hour glass. One of the ship's boys had the duty of watching the glass and turning it when the sand had run out. When he turned the glass, he struck the bell as a signal that he had performed this vital function. From this ringing of the bell as the glass was turned evolved the tradition of striking the bell once at the end of the first half hour of a four hour watch, twice after the first hour, etc., until eight bells marked the end of the four hour watch. The process was repeated for the succeeding watches. Bells for alarms
The bell is an essential link in a ship's fire alarm system. In the event of a fire, the bell is rung rapidly for at least five seconds, followed by one, two or three rings to indicate the location of a fire - forward, amidships, or aft respectively.

Maintenance and upkeep
Traditionally, the bell is maintained by the ship's cook, while the ship's whistle is maintained by the ship's bugler. In actual practice, the bell is maintained by a person of the ship's division charged with the upkeep of that part of the ship where the bell is located. In such a case a deck seaman or quartermaster striker or signalman striker may have the bell shining duty.
Today's role for bells
In addition to continuing its role as a timepiece and alarm, the bell serves a ceremonial and memorial function. Bells remain a powerful and tangible reminder of the history, heritage, and accomplishments of the naval service and merchant fleet.