Ship's Bells

SHIPS' BELLS

Some of the Bells on display at Nauticus

USS Kearsarge USS Orion AS-18
 
USS Wisconsin  

Bells have been used for centuries by navies and merchant fleets around the world for sounding alarms, signaling, and keeping time--all critical for ship routine and readiness. Bells are of major functional and ceremonial significance to the United States Navy.

Origins

The first cast metal bells were created during the Bronze Age. The metal craftsmen of China achieved a particularly high level of bell design and metal refinement. During the European Middle Ages, Christians used bells to signal divine services and deliver proclamations. Christian and Buddhist monasteries used bells to regulate daily activity—a practice adopted centuries later by the U.S. Navy.

One of the earliest recorded mentions of the shipboard bell was on the British ship Grace Dieu about 1485. Some ten years later an inventory of the English ship Regent reveals that this ship carried two "wache bells".

Timekeeping

While sundials were once used to track time on land; time at sea was once measured by the trickling of sand through a half-hour glass. A sailor—usually a young boy—was assigned the duty of watching and turning the glass when the sand ran out from top to bottom. When he flipped the glass over to begin the process anew, he struck the bell as a signal that he had performed this vital function. From these actions, the tradition of striking the bell once at the end of the first half-hour of a four-hour watch and twice after the first hour, evolved into eight bells marking the end of the four-hour watch.

The process was repeated in succeeding watches. This age-old practice of sounding the bell on the hour and half-hour to regulate the daily ship routine is a ritual still used in our 21st century Navy, just as it was on 18th century sailing vessels

Safety and Communication

The sounding of a ship 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. Today, maritime law requires all ships to carry a working bell.

After the American Revolution ended and after our separation from Great Britain was complete, the U.S. Navy maintained traditional 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 worth noting 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 enemy—the richly-laden Jamaica Fleet. The Americans took full advantage of their situation and captured ten prize vessels; with cargo, the ships were valued at more than a million dollars.

Alarms

The bell is an essential link in the ship emergency 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 be it forward, amidship or aft respectively.

Navy Ceremonies and Events

The bell is used to signal the presence of important persons. When the ship captain, a flag officer or other important person arrives or departs, watch standers make an announcement to the ship and ring the bell. This tradition extends to major naval command transitions, often held aboard vessels associated with the command.

Bells in Religious Ceremonies

The bell's connection to religious origins continues. Originating in the British Royal Navy, it is a custom to baptize a child under the ship bell; sometimes the bell is used as a christening bowl, filled with water for the ceremony. Once the baptism is completed, the child's name may be inscribed inside the bell. The bell remains with the ship while in service and with the Department of the Navy after decommissioning. In this way, an invisible tie is created between the country, the ship and its citizens.

Bells have been loaned or provided to churches as memorials to those vessels. This practice has been discontinued in favor of displaying bells with namesake states or municipalities, with museums and with naval commands and newer namesake vessels.

Maintenance and upkeep

Traditionally, the bell is maintained by the ship cook, while the ship whistle is maintained by the bugler.
In actual practice, each bell is maintained by crewmen designated from the division charged with the upkeep of the ship where the bell is located. A deck seaman, quartermaster striker or signalman striker may have the bell-shining duty.

Disposition and continuing Navy use

In addition to traditional shipboard roles, bells serve ceremonial and memorial functions after a ship has served out its Navy career.

U.S. Navy bells are among many artifacts removed from decommissioned vessels and preserved by the Naval History and Heritage Command. They may be loaned to new namesake ships; naval commands with a historical mission or functional connection and to museums and other institutions that are interpreting specific historical themes and displays of naval history. Bells remain the permanent property of the U.S. Government and the Department of the Navy. The bells serve to inspire and to remind our naval forces and personnel of their honor, courage and commitment to the defense of our nation.

Bells remain a powerful and tangible reminder of the history, heritage and accomplishments of the naval service.