Skip navigation
Share this page


Home | Exhibits | Publications | Web Resources | Contact Us


The Smithsonian's bell on exhibit in the Children's Room of the Castle, 1996.

The Smithsonian Bell

 

Architect James Renwick, Jr. designed the Smithsonian Building with a tall tower featuring four clock faces carved into the stone. Early in 1851 the Smithsonian’s Regents approved a resolution authorizing the Secretary to purchase a clock and bell for the tower. For unknown reasons, neither bell nor clock were installed at that time. The Smithsonian’s 150th Anniversary year presented an opportunity to fulfill the intent of the 1851 resolution with the casting of an 821-pound bronze bell at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London, England. The foundry, which has been in continuous operation for over 576 years, also cast Big Ben and the Liberty Bell, as well as several working bells in Washington, D.C., including those in the Old Post Office and the Washington National Cathedral. Casting took place on September 21, 1995.

Bearing an inscription proclaiming the Smithsonian mission, “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge...,” the inscribed bell also recognizes its donor, A.T. Cross Company, which shares the Smithsonian’s year of origin, 1846. The bell was lifted into its position on the clock tower roof, unseen from ground level, where it rang out for the first time on the Smithsonian’s birthday, August 10, 1996.

The bell is a stationary clock bell, and is wired directly to the Castle tower clock. Electronic controls regulate the bell's ringing and automatically adjust for daylight savings time. Smith of Derby Clockmakers, of Derby, England, manufactured the new clockworks for the Smithsonian bell.

 

This exhibit is dedicated to the memory of beloved Smithsonian Curator David H. Shayt through whose dedication and diligence the Smithsonian bell became a reality.

These four photos show the bell being hoisted to the top of the tall North tower of the Smithsonian Building on August, 10, 1996.


18th century engraving of bell mold making.

The Bell Casting Process

The bell casting process has remained virtually unchanged since medieval times: metal is heated to a molten state and poured into bell-shaped molds. Once cooled and the mold material removed, the bell is cleaned and tuned.


Filling the ladle with molten metal.
(Photo by David H. Shayt)

CASTING

The metal used in the casting of bronze bells is an alloy of 77% copper and 23% tin. Heated to 2140°F (1171°C), the molten metal is poured from the furnace into a massive ladle which is then brought to the mold on an overhead crane. The ladle is carefully tilted, discharging the liquid metal into the mold. After a day of cooling, the mold is broken open to reveal the bell.


Pouring the molten metal into the mold.
(Photo by David H. Shayt)


Scraping stuck loam from the bell surface.
(Photo by David H. Shayt)

CLEANING AND TUNING

After all mold loam has been removed, the bell must then be tuned in order to produce a pleasing tone when struck. Tuning takes place on a vertical boring mill that works like a potter’s wheel. While spinning upside down on the mill, metal is cut from the bell’s interior until the desired tone is achieved


Tuning the bell on the vertical boring mill.
(Photo by David H. Shayt)


Front entrance of the 575-year-old Whitechapel Bell Foundry,
32 Whitechapel Road in London, England.
(Photo by David H. Shayt)

THE WHITECHAPEL BELL FOUNDRY

The Smithsonian Bell was made by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which also creates ships' bells and handbells. The company is legendary in the field of bell-casting. It was chosen primarily because U.S. bell makers no longer cast bells of this size, and also because of its history as maker of many of the most well-known public bells in use today, such as those of Big Ben, the Old Post Office and the Washington National Cathedral. Whitechapel also created the first Liberty Bell.


The Whitechapel bell yard with bells that have been brought in to the bell yard for recasting or retuning.
(Photo by David H. Shayt)