Daily Archives: February 10, 2010

The Liberty Bell: How “Clang” Became “Clank”

It is not just the symbol of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team.  It is not just the image on the U.S. Postal Service’s Forever stamp.  No, most Americans will tell you that the Liberty Bell represents freedom — although they aren’t too sure how it got that honor.  Or how the bell got its famous crack.  Last time I was at the center in Philadelphia where the Liberty Bell is displayed, many of my fellow Americans were swarming around it, and  I overheard this exchange:  “How’d it crack?”  “I think they dropped it.”  Well, no.  Briefly, here’s the story…

The Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly sent away for the bell, intending to hang it in the new State House.  It was cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London and shipped to Philadelphia in 1752.  A temporary scaffolding had been erected near the State House; the bell was hung there for testing.  The tests didn’t go well: the first time it was rung, it cracked.   The colonists in attendance no doubt muttered, “Art thou kidding me?”

Since it probably wasn’t convenient to return a 2,000-pound bell as defective merchandise, it was turned over to a couple of local metal workers for repairs.  John Dock Pass and John Stow melted it down and started over, but thought the bell might need more copper, so they added some.  That second version produced what was described as “an unsatisfactory tone”.  We can only imagine what that may have been, tone-wise, but everyone knows that a bell should say “bonngg” and not “bonk”; “clang”, not “clank”.

Pass and Stow tried again, correcting the balance of metals in the bell — and including their names as part of the inscription on its crown.  In 1753 the bell went into service in the steeple of the State House (now known as Independence Hall).

It was rung on a great number of occasions after that, but probably not, as one tradition suggests, when the Declaration of Independence was first presented.  During the Revolutionary War, the Liberty Bell was removed from the steeple and hidden in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to keep the British from melting it down and converting it into cannons.

After the war it was returned to service in Philadelphia; it tolled for the passing of Alexander Hamilton in 1804, for John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (who both died on July 4, 1826), and upon the deaths of other famous Americans.  Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall died in 1835, and tradition says that’s when the bell cracked again.

An attempt to repair the Liberty Bell was made again in 1846.  The familiar feature of the bell — the visible “crack” with rivets at each end — was not the actual hairline crack, but the method of repair.  That half-inch slot was intentionally drilled into the bell as a way to control its vibration, and therefore its tone.

The repair worked briefly, but new cracks developed while the Liberty Bell was being rung on February 22, 1846, in honor of George Washington’s birthday.  These cracks were deemed irreparable, so the bell was retired from active duty.  It was taken down from the steeple in 1852 and has been on display in various places ever since.  It currently receives over a million visitors annually at its home on Market Street in Philadelphia.  You might say the Liberty Bell has proven to be far more durable as a symbol than it was as a musical instrument.