By Annalisa Underwood, Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division
For centuries, bells have had a long tradition of use in the navies and merchant fleets around the world. From time-keeping, signaling, and sounding alarms to a wide variety of ceremonial uses, ships’ bells have long occupied a place of importance in the U.S. Navy.
Bells cast from metal were first developed in the Bronze Age. One of the earliest recorded mentions of the shipboard bell was in 1485 on the British ship Grace Dieu. About 10 years later, an inventory of the English ship Regent showed that she carried two “wache bells.”
Bells have long been instrumental for timekeeping in the U.S. Navy. According to the Navy Department Library, time at sea was measured as sand trickled through a half-hour glass before the chronometer came along. One of the ship’s boys had the duty of turning the glass when the sand ran out. He would then strike the bell to signal that he performed this function. This practice evolved into the tradition of striking the bell once at the end of the first half-hour of a four hour watch, twice after the first hour, and so forth until eight bells marked the end of that four hour watch. The same process was applied for succeeding watches. The phrase “Eight bells and all is well” refers to completing a watch with no incident. This age-old practice of sounding the bell on the hour and half-hour is still used today to regulate daily routine just as it did on the Navy’s historic vessels of the 18th century.
The sounding of a ship’s bell is also used for signaling purposes in poor visibility as a warning to other vessels. In 1858, British naval regulations made it mandatory to ring a ship’s bell in foggy conditions. Today, maritime law requires all ships to carry an efficient bell.
Bells are also sounded in the event of an emergency aboard a ship. For example, in the event of a fire the bell is rung rapidly for at least five seconds, followed by one ring to indicate a forward fire, two if the fire is amidship, or three if the fire is aft.
The bell is also a prominent feature of many Navy ceremonies and events. It is used to signal the arrival and departure of the ship’s captain, a flag officer, or other dignitaries. This tradition is also extended at change of command ceremonies, often held aboard vessels associated with the command.
During the European Middle Ages, bells were used by Christians to signal divine services and make special announcements. In connection with the bell’s religious origins, ships’ bells have also been used as part of baptism rituals for children. The British Royal Navy began the custom of baptizing children under the ship’s bell, sometimes even filling the bell with water and using it as the christening bowl. Furthermore, the child’s name is sometimes inscribed inside the bell.
Traditionally, the bell is maintained by the ship’s cook. In modern practice, a Sailor of the ship’s division charged with maintaining the part of the ship where the bell is located usually has the bell-shining duty. The bell remains with the ship while she is in service. Once the ship is decommissioned, the bell is turned over to the Department of the Navy. U.S. Navy bells are part of the many artifacts preserved by the Naval History and Heritage Command. In fact, Naval History and Heritage Command’s Curator Branch head Karen France says NHHC has more than 1,500 ship bells and bell-related artifacts in the collection. Ship bells may be provided on loan to new namesake ships, naval commands with a historical mission or functional connection, and to museums and other institutions that interpret specific historical themes or have displays of naval history.