Ship's Bell History

Bells have been Historically used for regulation, signalling, keeping time, providing alarm & for ceremonies.

Marine Bell beginnings

Bells cast from metal were first developed in the Bronze Age, achieving a particularly high level of sophistication in China. During the European Middle Ages, they were used by Christians to signal divine services and make special announcements. Christian and Buddhist monasteries historically used them to regulate daily activity, similar to the later timekeeping by the U.S. & British Navies. Many religions believe bells represent the voice of God.

One of the earliest recorded mentions of the shipboard bell was on the British ship Grace Dieu about 1485.

Ships Bells for warnings

The sounding of a ship's bell found a natural usage as a warning signal to other vessels in poor visibility and fog. In 1858, British Naval Regulations made it mandatory in that function. Today, maritime law requires all ships to carry an efficient certified bell.

Mariner Bells for timekeeping

Far back as the15th Century, marininers used ships bells to indicate the time onboard a ship. The bell was rung every half hour of the 4 hour watch. A 24 hour day was divided into six 4 hour watches, except the dog watch (16:00 - 20:00 hours) which could be divided into two 2 hour watches to allow for the taking of the evening meal.

Historically, time at sea was measured by sand through an hour glass. One of the ship's boys had the duty of watching the glass and turning it when the sand had run out. When he turned the glass, he struck the bell as a signal that he had performed this vital function. From this ringing of the bell as the glass was turned evolved 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, etc., until eight bells marked the end of the four hour watch.

Middle Watch     Midnight to 4am    (0000 - 0400)
Morning Watch     4am to 8am            (0400 - 0800)
Forenoon Watch     8am to Noon          (0800 - 1200)
Afternoon Watch     Noon to 4pm          (1200 - 1600)
First Dog Watch     4pm to 6pm            (1600 - 1800)
Second Dog Watch     6pm to 8 PM           (1800 - 2000)
First Watch     8pm to Midnight     (2000 - 0000)

The bells are struck for every half-hour of each watch, with a maximum of eight bells.

  1. 00:30 1 bell ring
  2. 01:00 2 bell rings
  3. 01:30 2 bell rings *pause* 1 bell ring
  4. 02:00 2 bell rings *pause* 2 bell rings
  5. 02:30 2 bell rings *pause* 2 bell rings *pause* 1 bell ring
  6. 03:00 2 bell rings *pause* 2 bell rings *pause* 2 bell rings
  7. 03:30 2 bell rings *pause* 2 bell rings *pause* 2 bell rings *pause* 1 bell rings
  8. 04:00 2 bell rings *pause* 2 bell rings *pause* 2 bell rings *pause* 2 bell rings

At eight bells your watch was over! All other 4 hour watches followed this same procedure except the Dog Watches.

At the end of the First Dog Watch, only four bells were struck, and the Second Dog Watch bells were struck like this: 6:30 PM, one bell; 7 PM two bells; 7:30 PM, three bells; and at 8 PM, eight bells.

Bells for alarms

In the event of a fire, the bell is rung rapidly for at least five seconds, followed by one, two or three rings to indicate the location of a fire - forward, amidships, or aft respectively.

Bells in religious ceremonies

Originating in the British Navy, it is a custom to baptise a child under the ship's bell; sometimes the bell is even used as a christening bowl for the ceremony. Once the baptism is completed, the child's name may be engraved inside the bell. The bell remains with the ship while in service and with the Department of the Navy after decommissioning.

Maintenance and upkeep

Traditionally, a bell is maintained by the ship's cook, while the ship's whistle is maintained by the ship's bugler.

In actual practice, bell shining duty is maintained by the deck seaman or quartermaster striker or signalman striker.

Today's role for Brass & Chrome bells

U.S. Navy bells, part of the many artifacts removed from decommissioned vessels, are preserved by the Naval Historical Center. The Bells remain the permanent property of the US Government.

Ships Bells are a powerful reminder of the history and accomplishments of the navy.