Clinton Meneely’s 1935 speech

Clinton Meneely was the proprietor of a bellfoundry in Troy, in New York state in the US. There was a second Meneely foundry run by a relative of Clinton’s close by in Watervliet, West Troy. I am grateful to David Cawley for the following information: “It’s significant that it was Clinton Meneely (Troy Bell Foundry NY) who gave this interesting peroration. The policy of the Troy Foundry was not to tune bells, but it has to be remembered that there were two Meneely bell foundries in Troy – the other, the older and larger of the two being MENEELY & Co (Watervliet – West Troy – NY). It was established in 1826 by Clinton Meneely’s great-grandfather, Andrew Meneely Sr; he was also the grandfather of Andrew R Meneely who introduced bell tuning at Watervliet, and of Andrew E and Alfred C Meneely who developed it and produced the first American-cast carillons as a result.”

Instead of tuning his bells, Clinton Meneely relied on exact profiles and if necessary cast again and again until he achieved the desired result. The two foundries are supposed to have produced between them 65,000 bells in their life. They are no longer in production; to quote David Cawley again: “There was a family reconciliation in the late 1940’s; but it didn’t save the foundries which both closed in 1952, the Troy buildings being demolished soon after and the Watervliet Foundry in 1975.”

More details on these prolific founders can be found at the Meneely Bell Online Museum. This website is run by Dan Meneely, Clinton’s grandson, to whom I am grateful for permission to republish this most interesting (and sometimes polemical) talk.

In the talk, Clinton refers to a number of chimes or carillons of bells. The carillon in the City Hall at Albany was, at the time Meneely was speaking, a 47 bell instrument provided by Taylors in 1928. The bells at Lowell House in Cambridge are a 17-bell Zvon imported from Russia in 1930, originally part of a bigger instrument in the Danailov Monastery in Moscow. The Dorothy Carlisle chime in Northampton was a 12-bell chime provided by Clinton’s branch of the Meneelys in 1912. All of these details were taken from the excellent site of The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America. Without more introduction, on with the paper.


Presented at Schenectady, N. Y., to the combined societies of American Mechanical and Electrical Engineers on the evening of February 28, 1935, by Clinton Meneely of the Meneely Bell Co., Troy, N. Y.

My original intention, tonight, was to preface my remarks with a short resume of the history of bells, bringing out the more prominent facts that have been handed down to us by the old writers, and collected into several interesting volumes by various modern authorities. But, on consulting one of these, the first thing I read was that the Emperor Hoang-Ti of China commissioned one of his subjects to cast a set of tuned bells, which would become the official standard of pitch, in the year Two Thousand Six Hundred Ninety-Seven, B. C. I immediately decided that it would be too much to ask you gentlemen to bear with me through more than forty-six centuries of history and mythology, although I can recommend such a study to anyone who has the time and the leisure to give to it.

One thing that he will learn from this is quite surprising; that in spite of their age very little is known even today about the science of bells. Perhaps this can be explained by the aura of mysticism and religious exaltation that has tended to set bells aside from the ordinary run of phenomena. It is believed that the first bell was discovered when some primitive man struck a hollow trunk or a certain shaped stone and heard his gods speaking to him. That such a belief was carried through to the present is shown by the fact that in the Roman Catholic Church, the sound of a bell is the voice of God calling His people to worship. But whatever the reason, the science of bell tones is a subject that offers practically a virgin field to an investigator.

For convenience, we can divide the evolution of the modern bell into three general parts: The development of the metal used, the development of the general shape, and finally the applications of refinements to that general shape with a view toward producing definite qualities of musical tone.

The development of the alloy was concluded many years ago. Some of the oldest bells that we have records of were made from a mixture of copper and tin such as is used today. And in spite of certain statements that one hears as to the use of silver, the “bell metal” that is defined in texts is a definite alloy that is used by practically all the modern founders.

Similarly, the general shape of bells is quite universal. The evolution of this shape seems to have varied in different countries, depending on the state of the arts, but the sequence of changes seems to have been the same in each case. The first metallic bells were small ones, hammered out from sheet metal into shapes similar to that of the modern cowbell. With the development of casting, it was found that bells could be molded and poured to produce larger and more uniform results. But these early cast bells were really hand made, for the bell pattern was built up of some material such as wax around an inner core, and then the outer case of the mold was built up around this wax. By melting the bell form out of its molds, the founders could then reproduce it in the metal.

It was not until the modern method of making the molds with sweeps was developed that any real progress could be made in regard to the development of the tonal qualities of the bells, for this method allows the founder to keep definite control over the various dimensions of his bells and also assures him that his bell will be absolutely concentric in all its parts on the axis. Such development proceeded slowly by the trial and error method, and the first attempt at standardization did not come until the early part of the seventeenth century when two brothers, named Hemony, declared that the bells cast in their foundry in the Netherlands gave out seven tones: three octaves, two fifths, one minor third and one major third.

However, such standardization was probably not actually carried out to a very close degree. Many of the bells that are now hanging in European towers were made during the past two centuries. These bells, even when they were all made in the same foundry, are found to be entirely lacking in uniformity, and in fact take on such definite individualities that the ringers are accustomed to personify them with names suggested by the individual qualities of tone.

In the nineteenth century we find the first evidence of study of the tones of bells. One of the earliest articles written on the subject is that of Mr. Henry P. Monroe, published as an advertising pamphlet by the now defunct William Blake and Company of Boston in 1882. Although he gave no reason for his theory, Monroe said that a bell should contain from five to seven tones: the tonic, a hum note a sixth below, a third, a principle an octave above the tonic, a twelfth, a fifteenth and a seventeenth. These notes would produce a major chord. In further elaboration of this theme, Monroe claimed that this chord should be varied slightly according to the position of the bell in the scale of the complete chime, as none of the notes used should be ones that were not of the key in which the chime was supposedly tuned.

The theory is interesting only in that it shows a recognition of the tones of bells. But it is scientifically useless, as Monroe offered no proof that the tones he selected were correct, and the Blake foundry does not seem to have had nay means of applying the theory to its products as an inspection of one of its chimes will quickly show.

In 1890, the first real study of bell tones was published in the English Philosophical Magazine by Lord Rayleigh. Rayleigh conducted experiments with eight or nine bells cast by different English founders and he made several important discoveries. He used Helmholtz resonators and located the nodal meridians and circles of five of the bells’ partial tones. He also found that these tones were considerably out of tune with one another within each bell, but remarked on this point: “The dissonant effect of the inharmonious intervals actually met with is less than one would have expected from a musical point of view.” He then introduced some theories suggested by the general shape of bells which we are not interested in here.

Rayleigh wrote for the scientist and his discoveries did not reach many of the general public. But he was followed by Canon Simpson of the English clergy who published two articles in the popular Pall Mall Magazine in 1895 and 1896. Simpson’s first article was an attempt to call the attention of the public to the fact that the bells they were forced to listen to were imperfect. He declared that there was not a single bell in England which was in tune, even with itself, and went on to say: “Many of us, also, have been struck by the apparent want of harmony in the famous carillons of Bruges and other Belgian towns and some few have been at great expense to set up carillons of their own, and have been reluctantly driven to the vexatious conclusion that they are ‘painfully out of tune’”.

According to Simpson, the theory behind the minds of the original designers of the bells he was studying was that a perfect bell should have the following tones: the fundamental or tonic, the third, fifth and octave above, and the octave below. His analyses had shown him that these notes were present in the bells, but no attempt was made to bring them into their proper relations. In fact, the founder disregarded all but one of these when tuning a bell to its place in a peal or carillon, using only the tone which was supposed to give the bell its pitch. And most surprising of all, he found that there was even confusion among the founders as to which tone was the most prominent, as the English tuned the nominals, or high octaves, and the Continental founders tuned the fundamentals or tonics, although they both cast the same type of bell.

The obvious conclusion to be made was that if these notes were placed in tune the intolerable sounds that were produced by playing chords on bells would be eliminated. But first he had to show that it was possible to make such bells. In his second paper, he showed very graphically how the grinding off of metal at various circles within the bell would raise or lower some of the partial tones enough to bring them to their proper levels. Having proven that his theoretically proper bell could be made, he challenged the founders to cast their bells to his specifications.

One or two English founders accepted this challenge in part, and they proceeded to carry out and add to Simpson’s experiments in tuning, though they used the minor third of the Hemony brothers rather than Simpson’s major third, and claimed to have “rediscovered” the old art of 5-point tuning that was practiced by those famous carillon founders. But they found it decidedly less expensive to correct their bells after they were cast, using the clergyman’s method, than to cast the bells with the corrections already made on the patterns. For this reason, their method cannot be termed a “rediscovery of a long forgotten secret” as it has been claimed.

From this method of 5-point tuning we have the modern carillon bell such as you gentlemen may have heard in the tower of the City Hall at Albany. As far as I can learn, this bell is the only proof of the correctness of the theory of 5-point tuning. Does it prove its point?

You may remember that about a year ago President Roosevelt was made the victim of a hoax, perpetrated by some Harvard students who circulated the story that the carillon of bells in Lowell House, Cambridge, was to be named after him. When investigation proved the story false, Roosevelt wrote: “I am not in the least perturbed about the chime of bells because, strictly between ourselves, I should much prefer to have a puppy dog or a baby named after me than one of these carillon effects which is never quite in tune and that goes off at all hours of the day and night. At least one can give paregoric to a puppy or baby.”

Roosevelt can certainly be said to know what he was criticizing, for the governor’s office at Albany, in which he spent a number of years, is within a block of the municipal carillon tower. And further proof that the 5-point tuned bell is not satisfactory is given by the flood of letters and editorials that were published commenting on and elaborating the President’s statement. In answer to this criticism, the only explanation offered by those interested in carillons was a statement of Mr. Frederick Rocke, a New York City organist, that it is necessary to accustom ourselves to carillons; to fall under their spell. “Even musicians have to listen long and often to carillon playing.” But accustoming oneself to the defects of an instrument does not eliminate those defects. There are bells in some of our churches which are considered wonderful by the people who have grown up within sound of them, but which a modern foundry would break up rather than offer for sale.

If we wish to learn what the fault is with five point tuning, we must look to some of our modern researchers in the field of sound. Remember that this method is not the one suggested by Simpson but is a cheaper one that it was hoped would produce the same theoretically perfect results. Now it is well known that cutting or grinding on certain parts of a vibrating body will change the frequency of some of its vibrations. What is also well known, but overlooked by the ones who have followed this method, is that this same cutting and grinding considerably changes the relative amplitudes of those same partial tones. One experimenter on bells found that continuous grinding on the sound bow of a bell, for example, makes the strike note grow fainter and fainter and finally disappear altogether.

Perhaps some of you gentlemen are more familiar with the work of Mr. Harvery Fletcher of the Bell Telephone Laboratories than I am. I have read one or two of his articles, and one thing stands out very clearly from his experiments: that the relative intensities of the partial tones of a musical instrument is a very important factor in determining the quality of that tone. In fact, the elimination of a few partials was enough to change the quality of a tone from what a committee of musicians judged to be highly musical to what they could only classify as “noise”. This is a factor that “5-point tuning” has entirely disregarded, and as a result, the carillon bells produced by this method are not uniform in quality.

When a number of similar instruments are to be played together, the main consideration is given to matching the qualities of the different tones. For example, a quartette of voices selected from a men’s chorus will not contain the best voices from each part except under most unusual circumstances. Yet the maker of a “5-point tuned” bell assumed that by merely tuning notes he produces bells of a quality that will blend best. As a matter of fact, the indications are that the emphasis should be placed entirely on the obtaining of bells whose qualities are shown to be most uniform by actual test, and secondarily contain no notes which are strongly inharmonious. Lord Rayleigh found that the musical effect of the dissonance of the partial tones of a bell was far less than one would expect. Simpson remarked: “For reasons which satisfy the leaned in acoustics, the differences in quality (“quality” here being applied in a general sense to each partial tone) of those sets of tones is such that they do not interfere with one another so as to give the sense of discord which we would expect.” It is a mistake to insist upon the rigid correction of an error that is admittedly small in its effect when to do so produces another error whose effect appears to be very far-reaching. In our own foundry, we have found that the best results are obtained by placing the emphasis on uniformity of quality both in the design and the finished product, and selecting the bells for one set on the basis of the qualities that they actually show rather than those which an unproven theory attempts to predetermine. On the other hand, such a method of manufacture and selection takes considerably more time and investment.

There is another point that Simpson himself missed. It must be remembered that he was not a founder and that his laboratories were towers where bells were already in place. It was not likely that it would have occurred to him that the arrangement of the partial tones in a theoretically perfect bell would not necessarily be the same as the arrangement that he found. Similarly, the founders would not be apt to feel that the bells they were making were not based on the best ideal. In the light of modern scientific advancement, it is unwise to rely on precedent alone, yet the specifications for the pitches of the partial tones of the 5-point tuned bell were laid down three hundred years ago. If Simpson had known what we know now he would have recognized that Belgian carillon bells which he declared to be “painfully out of tune” were really close approximations to the bell that he advocated. Actually, there is no one who can arbitrarily say what partial tones the best bell will contain, or how strong these different tones should be, although it seems reasonable to guess that a bell with less prominent overtones than the carillon bell will be better suited for use in attuned sets. At least, one should expect better results from a bell whose strike note stands out so clearly as to be unmistakably the tone which gives its pitch to the bell.

The most modern discoveries that have been made about bells tend to bring out so many complications that any such theory as that on which 5-point tuning is based becomes puerile in its simplicity. By far the most extensive researches in the past few years have been made by Professor A. T. Jones of Smith College, Northampton, Mass. Professor Jones’ interest was first aroused by the remarks of some of his predecessors which led him to believe that there was some mystery in regard to the strike note of a bell. Rayleigh had found that the fifth partial, the nominal of Simpson, was the only tone which approximated the note which the bell was supposed to give, if the interval of octave was disregarded. Similarly, Simpson wrote: “While a tuner always gave the nominal as the note of the bell, he invariably gave the pitch an octave lower than it was.”

Even more remarkable phenomena were noted by a German Scientist named Blessing, who found that while the various partials of a bell could be picked up by resonators, and could be made to sound in the bell through resonance, the strike note would not respond to either of these experiments.

In his studies, Jones first analyzed the partial tones of the bells in the Dorothy Carlisle Chime at Smith College, using Helmholtz resonators and a calibrated sonometer. He classified these tones as to pitch, and also explored the bells to determine the number and positions of the nodal meridians and nodal circles. After tabulating his results, he found that there was definitely no partial tone which even approximated the pitch of the strike note in each bell.

The first explanation that suggested itself was that this tone is a combination tone. However, calculation of the difference tones from the observed frequencies of the various partials showed that this was not the case. Furthermore, one would expect a combination tone to be very faint if heard at all, whereas the strike note stands out very clearly, even when a bell is tapped gently.

Jones then considered the possibility that the strike note is given by a compressional wave which spreads through the material of a bell, returning periodically to the point of striking. But an experiment with a bar of bell metal which we cast for him showed that this, too, was impossible.

On the other hand, there is every reason to believe that the strike note is really determined by the fifth partial tone, subjectively lowered one octave in pitch by the hearer. To make an error of an octave in pitch is not uncommon, even among musicians. The fifth partial vibrates most heavily in the sound bow of a bell and, as explained, before, removal of metal from the sound bow makes the strike note grow fainter and disappear. Third, experiments to determine the amount and succession of amplitudes of the different partials of a bell, struck in the normal manner, proved that both the fifth partial and the strike note were the most prominent immediately after the bell was struck, dying away quickly afterward in relation to the rest of the overtones.

Finally, the length of time during which the clapper remains in contact with the bell is one half of a period of the vibrating frequency of the fifth partial, showing that this tone is the favored one when the bell is struck.

We can only speculate, now, as to why the ear misjudges this tone one octave. Perhaps, as Jones suggests, it is because the prominent fifth and seventh partials correspond to the harmonic second and third partials of the more familiar musical instruments and help to suggest the fundamental first partial that we are accustomed to hear. Or it may arise from some effect caused by the fact that the different partial tones do not all reach their maximum amplitudes at the same time, and die away at entirely different rates.

Until we know this reason, it will be impossible for a founder to tune the partial tones and declare that all of the notes of his bell are in tune. That something more than the influence of the fifth partial enters into the determination of the strike note is shown by the following experiment made by Professor Jones. He wished to have an accurate determination of the pitches of the strike notes of three bells. Since these notes will not beat with a fork, it is impossible to tune forks to them by counting the number of beats, and vice-versa. Jones took seven qualified musicians separately into the tower and asked them to help him tune pitchforks to the strike notes of the bells. When he compared the results obtained, he found that these men varied by as much as half a tone in their determinations. One of the men remarked to Jones that when the pitch of the fork was close, it was impossible for him to tell whether it was sharp or flat. This offers a ready explanation for the fact that the bells of a carillon or other set of 5-point tuned bells frequently sound out of tune. Even though the partial tones can be tuned accurately, the strike notes cannot, and there is not any basis for an assumption that the pitch of the strike note is determined solely by the pitches of the various partial notes.

Within the past few years, more careful studies of the partial tones of bells have been made. In a paper published in 1933, Jones describes one of the latest methods used. A variable vacuum-tube oscillator is fed into a telephone receiver, the diaphragm of which is replaced by a rubber coated armature of soft iron. When this is rested against a bell and made to vibrate in the frequency of one of the partial tones, the bell gives a resonant response; and while it is thus vibrating in a single partial mode, its surface is explored with a stethoscope which picks up the movements though a light pin. Jones detected and mapped sixteen different partials in his bells by this method. All of these tones were contained in one octave.

By touching on these points, I hope that I have given you an idea of the complexities which confront the student of this subject. You can readily see that there can be no theory worthy of the name which does not take all of these points into consideration; and since we do not yet know what all the factors are that have to be considered, it is impossible to set any definite specifications and hope to produce a perfect bell.

Suppose that one of you gentlemen were to be asked, tomorrow, to act as a member of a committee to select a set of bells for some tower. What criterion can you use to base your selection on? There is only one: your musical judgment. Forget all the facts and theories I have talked about, or which may be brought up. Listen to bells that have been placed in towers by different manufacturers, and listen to them from the places where they are intended to be heard. Judge them solely from the musical impression that they make upon you, and thus make your selection from the finished product rather than from some theoretical process of manufacture which has the same scientific background as some of the expressions found in modern advertisements.

When considering musical qualifications, there is one last point that I wish to bring up. Strictly speaking, no bell is a musical instrument. The standards that are set upon any musical instrument before it can be admitted to a symphony orchestra, except to produce a momentary effect, are very exacting. No bell can ever be made which will satisfy these standards. As a result, no true musician can ever admit that any set of bells will be perfect. It will approach such an ideal only when used for the simple, familiar melodies; and to allow the playing of the more complicated works on a set of bells is a feature of sensationalism that belongs on the vaudeville stage.

On this point, I take the liberty of quoting one of our greatest authorities on sound, Helmholtz, who was speaking of all percussion instruments whose partial tones do not follow the harmonic order:

“Only such of these as have not very strong secondary tones of this (nature) can be singly and occasionally employed in connection with musical instruments proper.”

“A very striking example of this was furnished by a company of bell ringers, said to be Scotch, that lately travelled about Germany, and performed all kinds of musical pieces, some of which had an artistic character. The accuracy and skill of the performance was undeniable, but the musical effect was detestable, on account of the heap of false overtones which accompanied the music, although care was taken to damp each bell as soon as the proper duration of its note had expired, by placing it on a table covered with cloth.”

When I was a student at Princeton, one of my preceptors was Dean Christian Gauss, a man whom I greatly admire. I remember his once telling us that a student of any subject does not really begin to acquire knowledge until he reaches the point where he realizes that the number of things he does not and will never know far outweighs the number of things that he does know.

On that basis, I feel that I can qualify myself as an expert on the subject of bells, and on that same basis, I will try to answer any of your questions.