UW News

May 8, 2008

A life in bell towers rings his chimes

Bob Smith knows a lot about the world of academia and the world of bells. No wonder, then, that he was right at home in his role supervising the installation of the new bells in Gerberding’s tower last week. Smith came as a representative of UK bell hangers Taylor, Eayre and Smith, a firm he’s theoretically retired from.

“This was supposed to be my last job,” the 70-year-old Smith says, “but I’ve promised to finish an installation in Brisbane (Australia), so I still have that one to do, too.”

The way Smith talks about the installations he’s been part of all around the world, it’s easy to believe he’d go on installing bells for another 20 years, but he says he’s “getting a bit elderly to be crawling around in towers.”

His love affair with bells began when he was 17 and learned to be a change ringer. Change ringing, which is very common in England — mostly in churches — is done by a team, or band, of ringers, one to a bell. Each bell in a set, or “ring,” is a different size, and thus has a different tone, so by varying the order in which they’re rung, different patterns are produced. Gerberding’s eight bells are designed for change ringing.

Having learned how to ring, Smith then became an engineer and a teacher whose expertise is in structures — the perfect combination for a bell hanger. “You have to know your structures and materials,” he says. “It’s mechanical engineering, really.”

But he didn’t begin his bell hanging career until he was 40. While he was head of engineering at the University of Loughborough in England, he and his wife gathered the equivalent of $100 in American money and started a company, Eayre and Smith, with a friend. Ten years later, the company was doing well enough that Smith took early retirement from his academic job, and 10 years after that the company was doing $1 million a year in business. Three years ago, Smith and his wife proposed a merger with the Taylor Bell Foundry so that they could retire.

But they haven’t yet, because there are these promises Smith made, such as the one he made to the University three years ago, when he had his first look at the Gerberding bell tower. Inspecting a tower is the first step in any bell installation, he says.

“Not every tower we inspect is suitable for bells. I’ve inspected quite a few where I’ve said I wouldn’t put bells in here because it’s not strong enough. When the bells ring, it would shake the tower down.”

That, he explains, is because of the force exerted by bells swinging full circle on a frame. The vertical force exerted by the bell is four times its weight, and the horizontal force is twice its weight. So, for example, Gerberding’s bells range from slightly more than 200 to nearly 700 pounds, with a collective weight of more than 2,800 pounds, so when in motion they would collectively exert 11,000 pounds of vertical force and 5,600 pounds of horizontal force. It’s the horizontal force that is worrisome, Smith says. Most towers are reinforced vertically, with strong foundations, but they aren’t as strong horizontally.

Once a tower has been inspected and deemed strong enough to support bells, the next step for the bell hangers is to determine how many bells it can accommodate and to design a bell frame that will fit in the tower and create a good configuration for the ringers, who stand in a ringing room beneath the belfry. Ropes for the bells come through the ceiling into the ringing room. Everything depends on the rope circle, Smith says.

“In an ideal rope circle, the ringers will be able to stand in order, according to the weight of the bells, not too close together but with an unobstructed view of each other. And the rope for each bell will come straight down to the ringer, with no pulling sideways.”

That may seem obvious, but Smith says he’s seen rope circles in which some ringers are standing behind others, or out of order for the bells they’re ringing. That’s largely because in England, change ringing has been around since the 17th century, and nearly every church has a ring of bells (there are more than 5,000 bell installations in England, compared to fewer than 50 in this country). Modifications over the years have resulted in some jerry-rigged systems, some of which he’s had to correct as he’s been hired to replace old bells.

Gerberding’s bell frame is a radial one, carefully designed to fit into a fairly small space and still allow the bells to swing free. But when Smith arrived he learned there was a glitch. The louvers for the tower’s open spaces, which hadn’t yet been installed, were going to protrude into the space two inches further than he’d thought, meaning that the bell wheels wouldn’t be able to swing around. That problem was solved by rotating the frame 20 degrees. It’s all part of the precision work and constant need for adaptation of a bell hanger.

Smith says it isn’t necessary for a bell hanger to be a ringer, but it’s a definite advantage. “I know what the customer wants,” he says.

Gerberding’s bells were tested last week in the evening, and found to work just fine. The formal dedication and first public ringing are scheduled for Saturday, May 31. Smith, who is heading home soon after spending more than a week on campus supervising the installation, plans to return for the dedication, then head off to Yellowstone for a week’s holiday with his wife, whom he met through bell ringing and who has been as involved in the business as he has.

“Bell hanging is a lovely way to fund going around the world,” he says “We meet a lot of lovely people because we’re not ordinary tourists.”