Big Ben and the Westminster Chimes

This post is dedicated to Dr. Lindsey Meredith

On this Day:

In 1487, Bell chimes were invented.

A chime or set of chimes is a carillon-like instrument, i.e. a pitched percussion idiophone consisting of 22 or fewer cast bronze bells. Chimes are primarily played with a keyboard, but can also be played with an Ellacombe apparatus. Chimes are often automated, in the past with mechanical drums connected to clocks and in the present with electronic action. Bellfounders often did not attempt to tune chime bells to the same precision as carillon bells. Chimes are defined as specifically having fewer than 23 bells to distinguish them from the carillon. American chimes usually have one to one and a half diatonic octaves. According to a recent count, there are over 1,300 existing chimes found throughout the world. Almost all of them are located in the Netherlands and the United States, and other countries in Western Europe.

The word chime dates back to the 14th-century Middle English word chymbe, meaning ‘cymbal’. It probably originates from the Old French chimbe or directly from the Latin cymbalum. The Latin word was shortened in Old French and misinterpreted as chymbe bellen in Middle English, where the meaning shifted by the mid-16th century to “set of bells in a church or clock tower, apparatus or arrangement for striking bells”.

Chime bells are made of bell bronze, a specialized copper-tin alloy used for its above-average rigidity and resonance. A bell’s weight and profile, or shape, determine its note and the quality of its tone. It produces a sound with overtones or partial tones which are not necessarily harmonically related. To produce a pleasing, harmonically related series of tones, the bell’s profile must be carefully adjusted. However, little to no effort was made to tune bells for chimes. Few have been tuned to the same precision as bells for carillons.

The chime and the carillon’s histories are mostly identical up until their debut in North America. In the late 18th century, chimes of 10 to 20 bells played with a large keyboard became fashionable in France and Great Britain and by the mid-19th century, they had become equally desirable in the United States. Between 1850 and 1930, hundreds of chimes were installed in churches, town halls, and other towers. The chime was the forerunner to the carillon in North America; the earliest carillons were installed during World War I.

The early chime market in North America consisted of the Meneely bell foundries, both located on the Hudson River in upstate New York; McShane in Baltimore, Maryland; Van Duzen in Cincinnati, Ohio; Jones in Troy, New York; and Stuckstede in St. Louis, Missouri. The Meneely foundries dominated the market; before both ceasing operations in the 1950s, they cast a combined total of more than 65,000 bells.

According to TowerBells, the countries with the largest number of chimes are: the United States (596), the Netherlands (157) and Canada (79) (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

There was an inventor in the late 1800s who despised chimes; he designed a device that would eliminate every bell in the world.

He was later awarded the Nobel prize

Second, a Song:

Here is a Westminster Quarters studio recording courtesy of YoPoMusic and of the chimes of Big Ben. This includes all four sets of chimes. This is a clock chime played using a set of four notes.

The number of quarter hours is represented by the number of sets of chimes. This is also known as the Westminster Chimes or Cambridge Quarters.

On the full hour the great bell in Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben) strikes after the four sets of chimes to indicate the full hour. I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“It would no doubt be very sentimental to argue – but I would argue it nevertheless – that the peculiar combination of joy and sadness in bell music – both of clock chimes, and of change-ringing – is very typical of England. It is of a piece with the irony in which English people habitually address one another.” – A. N. Wilson

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Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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