By Guest Author 04/09/2020


Recently, the Science Media Centre ran the first round of its 2020 SAVVY Video Competition for science researchers. With twelve entries, ranging from infant nutrition to the science of bell-ringing, we judges were incredibly impressed by the creativity and quality of submissions. This week, we’re featuring the work of runner-up prize winner, MA student Scott Pilkington.

My name is Scott Pilkington, and I have recently submitted my MA in Museums & Cultural Heritage at the University of Auckland investigating how science is communicated in New Zealand museums. I’m also a campanologist (someone who studies bells), acting as both the Public Programmes Coordinator and one of the bellringers with St Matthew’s Society of Bellringers in Auckland.

I figured that visualising my thesis (standing outside a shipping container and then looking at boxes of questionnaires) would be a bit boring, so for my video entry, I decided to look at something I could bring to life more easily: the science of bellringing.

There are many scientific processes needed to be able to successfully ring bells. Everything from the civil engineering of the tower and any accompanying buildings (like a church or a town hall) that allows it to flex and bend and not snap in half, to the complex relationship between sight and sound that allow bellringers to see the order of the ropes and know what bells are going to sound before their rung. For my short video, however, I’ve focussed on just three of them: the physics of moving a tonne of metal around in a circle, the chemistry of making a piece of bronze chime, and the anthropology (specifically ethnomusicology) of why people pick up a £100,000 musical instrument from the other side of the planet.

Physics

There’s more than one way to strike a bell. The simplest is with a non-moving bell (‘hung dead’) into which you strike a clapper. This is the type of mechanism generally used in clocks, such as the bell ‘Big Ben’ in the Elizabeth Tower at Westminster in London, UK. This is also how carillons work, such as the National War Memorial in Wellington, NZ.

The second is to swing the bell against the clapper. These bells will have a lever of some sort attached to the headstock of the bell allowing the ringer to get the bell moving. Examples of this can be found in chiming bells all around the world, especially in Europe, with the best examples coming from Catholic churches.

The last is the most complex. By adding a flywheel to the bell, not only can a larger amount of bell movement be achieved using less physical work, but by balancing the bell upside down, the amount of time between each bell strike can be controlled. This allows a band of bellringers to ring in a defined order (rather than the cacophony of the swinging chiming bells), and to change the order of the bells. This style of ringing evolved simultaneously in England and northern Italy. The style that developed in England is known as changeringing (because one can ring ‘in changes’). This is the style of bellringing found at St Matthew-in-the-City in Auckland, NZ.

Chemistry

Bells are made from a specific bronze alloy (imaginatively called ‘bell metal’, and also found in industrial applications and cannons), but the bronze you have at home doesn’t sing the way a bell does. Bell metal has the same elements as bronze (mostly copper and tin), but with a much higher tin content than normal bronze. This gives it better rigidity, endurance, and resonance, but also increases its brittleness. This means that special care must be taken when striking a bell so as not to crack it.

This happened with the first Big Ben bell in London in 1859 which cracked when struck for the first time. The crack was irreparable, and the bell had to be broken up, melted down, and cast again. Unfortunately the bell was too big to break up by hand, so it had to be raised up the side of the tower and dropped onto the ground repeatedly so that it would be in small enough pieces to be carted away (McKay, 2010). The current Big Ben bell also has a crack in it, but this was repaired, and the bell rotated so that the crack was no longer on one of the vibration nodes. This is what gives Big Ben its characteristic timbre and unique tuning.

Anthropology

Changeringing originated in England in the 17th Century (Duckworth & Stedman, 1668; Stedman, 1677). By the late 19th Century, bellringing was found throughout the UK, with nearly 5000 bell towers in England alone. Changeringing  is recognised as an independent musical culture (Pilkington, 2010), and was spread throughout the Anglophone world with colonisation. However, unlike other British traditions, like cricket, meat pies, and Anglicanism, bellringing never really took off in Aotearoa New Zealand, and no-one really knows why.

Two main hypotheses have been presented. The first is that Aotearoa has a low density and small population, which when combined with the tyranny of distance, meant that purchasing bells from a traditional bell foundry in the UK was prohibitively expensive (Australia and the USA did cast their own bells, but these were deemed to be inferior to the traditional UK ones, which is a whole fascinating study into material culture of its own).

The second is historically, the bells were used as a communication device, signalling to people that it was time to come to church or to congregate for other reasons. By the time that larger settlements were being established in Aotearoa at the end of the 19th Century, people had their own timekeeping and were less reliant on the church bells (Johnston, 2006).

Ringable changeringing towers around the world (Source: Dove, 2000)

Completing the SAVVY video production workshops has made me realise that the science of bellringing is much bigger than I originally thought, and a 90 second video was not going to be able to do it justice. I plan to make this into a wider series, looking into the different scientific aspects that makes bellringing possible. Some, like the anthropology of bellringing, bellringing material culture, recreational motivations, and bellringing tourism (yes that’s a thing), need further research as well.

Watch Scott’s prize-winning video entry here.