Ship’s Bells

Bells have a centuries-long tradition of varied use in the navies and merchant fleets of the world.

  • Signaling,
  • keeping time,
  • sounding alarms

are important in a ship’s routine and readiness. Their functional and ceremonial uses have made them a symbol of considerable significance to the United States Navy.

Carl Snow’s sea story:  I was on a ship (USS Lockwood, FF-1064) when we pulled into port and couldn’t find the quarterdeck bell. The watch was set and one of the cooks brought up the blade from the bread mixer, which was hung in the quarterdeck shack and a large serving spoon from the galley was used to strike the blade. It worked very well until the XO noticed that the “bell sounds different” and wanted to know why. In less than a half-hour, the bell was found and mounted in its proper place.

Carl Snow is the Scuttlebutt editor in chief for the USS Midway (CV-41)  Research Library and sea storyteller par excellence.

From the Encyclopedia Britannica

Ship’s bell, bell used as early as the 15th century to sound the time on board ship by striking each half hour of a watch. The mariner’s day is divided into six watches, each four hours long, except that the 4:00 to 8:00 pm watch may be “dogged”; that is, divided into the first and second dogwatches, each two hours long, to allow men on duty to have their evening meal. Through the 18th century, time was ordinarily measured on board ship by using a 30-minute sandglass. The quartermaster or ship’s boy turned the glass when the sand ran through, and it became customary for him to strike the bell as he did so. Eight times in each watch the glass was turned and the number of strokes on the bell indicated the number of half hours elapsed after the men came on deck. These strokes are sounded in pairs, with an interval following each pair.

Ship's bells chart

A series of rapid, successive strokes on the bell is used as a warning during fog, and, at other times, this is a fire signal.

In 1798, Paul Revere cast a bell weighing 242 pounds for the frigate Constitution.

ship's bell--USS Constitution
In 1798, Paul Revere cast a bell weighing 242 pounds for the frigate Constitution.

From the US Naval History and Command Center:

It is of interest 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.

Other uses for the bell:

Originating in the British Royal Navy, it is a custom to baptize a child under the ship’s 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.

11 thoughts on “Ship’s Bells”

  1. Pat, my head is ringing, thinking about all these bell uses. Most (but not all) of them sounded familiar as I read your post, yet I had never given it much thought. Thanks for a marvelous post. I’m crediting you with “Bell” as a thing in this weekend’s episode of The Delta Pearl. I had used a klaxon, but I can work “bell” into that. Hugs on the wing!

    Liked by 1 person

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