BELL, a hollow metallic vessel used for making a more or less loud noise (A.S. bellan, to bellow; Mid. Eng. ‘to bell’; cf. ‘As loud as belleth winde in helle,’ in Chaucer, House of Fame, iii. 713). Bells are usually cup-like in shape, and are constructed so as to give one fundamental note when struck. The term does not strictly include gongs, cymbals, metal plates, resonant bars of metal or wood, or tinkling ornaments [...].1

The bell is an artificial object made by man in many different sizes for different purposes. We do not [...] consider natural objects such as shells and husks to be bells, although they may be used similarly and produce similar sounds.2


Alarm-Clock Dreams 

I dreamt that one spring morning I was going for a walk and was strolling through the green fields until I came to a neighbouring village, where I saw the villagers in their best clothes, with hymn books under their arms, flocking to the church of course! It was Sunday, and early morning service would soon be beginning. I decided I would attend it; but first, as I was rather hot from walking, I went into the churchyard which surrounded the church to cool down. While I was reading some of the tombstones, I heard the bell-ringer climbing up the church-tower and at the top of it I now saw the little village bell which would presently give the signal for the beginning of devotions. For quite a while it hung there motionless, then it began to swing, and suddenly its peal began to ring out clear and piercing — so clear and piercing that it put an end to my sleep. But what was ringing was the alarm-clock.

 The problem of alarm-clocks preoccupied the early theoreticians of dreams.3 The dream was apparently prompted by the sounding of an alarm-clock (which, in nineteenth century Germany, would have been a bell rather than a buzzer). But how then to account for such a lengthy preamble? For a dream-narrative which makes room for the stretch of silent time prior to the bell ringing — that long moment of poised stillness, before the bell’s unrealised kinetic energy is suddenly translated into sound? The question, ‘whether and how it [is] possible to compress such an apparently superabundant quantity of material into the short period elapsing between [the dreamer] perceiving the rousing stimulus and his waking,’ was debated in the pages of the Revue Philosophique in 1884-5. A different issue, though, is this inversion — or the illusion of an inversion — of cause and effect. As F.W. Hildebrant, the dreamer, explains: ‘It must have happened hundreds of times that the noise produced by this instrument [the alarm-clock] fitted into an ostensibly lengthy and connected dream as though the whole dream had been leading up to that one event and had reached its appointed end in what was a logically appointed climax.’4 The stimulus has been converted into the outcome: a bell rings, the dream narrative unfolds — which happens to be all about arriving at a plausible overture, an explanation as to why a bell might be about to ring. The dreamer’s sequence of possible explanations (all elaborated after the fact), reads like an index of preludes to a bell ringing in waking life: because of the time of day; because of a social or religious ritual and so the day of the week; because, for some more or less pressing reason, the community, or sectors of it, is supposed to gather, to come together or, if not that, then at least to understand something: to register that something has or is about to happen.

For the theoreticians of dreams, the ringing of an alarm clock bell is an example, just one kind of dream-stimulus among others. But bells as stimuli — as prompts, calls, markers — have a certain specificity, in the first place because the sound of a bell is immediately, and even universally, recognisable. Everyone knows what a bell sounds like. This is probably because the bell is the one instrument we all hear on a more or less daily basis. And always have: if we were to undertake an excavation of our contemporary urban soundscape, a kind of archaeology of city sounds, we would hear a bell at each of stratum of sound from the present back to the middle ages, when even the smaller towns had a bell. The rise of the city is bound up with the secular use of bells. Percival Price describes how cities would densify rather than to expand so as to stay within ear-shot of the bell. Antwerp, for example, rebuilt its city walls three times, each time further out, and each time acquired a larger civic bell so that its sound would reach the new limits.5 The requirements of collective city living called for a system of mass, instantaneous communication which, in turn, called for a bell. Or is it that the sound-radius of the bell determined the circumference — and even prompted the very idea — of the city? The sound of a bell works as a stimulus to generate a causal explanation, a narrative — with the sound of a bell ringing as its ‘logical climax’ or dénouement.


Pavlov’s ‘Metronome’

Given the historical use of bells to prompt conditioned responses, Ivan Pavlov ought to have used a bell. In 1994, the psychologist A. C. Cantania published an article wondering about this. He describes attending the 1991 annual meeting of the Pavlovian Society of North America in Baltimore, and being struck by a poster displayed next to the registration area.6 The poster showed an enlarged photograph of Pavlov’s desk; on it, featured prominently, was a hand-held bell. The association of the idea of conditioning with a bell is widespread, accepted, unremarkable. But did Pavlov actually use a bell? Cantania was suddenly uncertain. He asked among his fellow participants, and none could recall any specific moment in the literature on Pavlov’s experiments that documented the use of bells. So, in 1993, he visited Pavlov’s apartments in St Petersburg, which have been turned into a museum. Pavlov’s study has been kept just as it was: an area cordoned off from the bedroom by bookcases, dominated by a writing-desk where he would work every evening from 9pm to midnight. Cantania made some inquiries. Again, no one he asked could offer any information on whether Pavlov’s experiments had ever used a bell. So Cantania studied the writings themselves: he found evidence of the use of metronomes, hooters and buzzers, but nothing on bells. Perhaps, he speculates, Pavlov’s original Russian text was somehow inadequately translated: the reference to bells lost in the conversion from one language to another. Perhaps, more radically, Pavlov did not use bells at all, eschewing them ‘in favour of devices that presented auditory stimuli in a more consistent way.’ A bell is, by definition, ‘an artificial object’ (and so not a shell, or a husk); but, unless it is rung by some ‘automated system,’ it will produce variable stimuli from trial to trial — a metronome may well have suited Pavlov’s purposes better. In which case, the association between behavioural conditioning and a bell — the conjunction ‘Pavlov’s bell’ — is a fiction, a fabrication, with — again — a bell as its logical conclusion.


Three years later, in 1997, Rand B. Evans published a piqued response to Cantania’s speculations, setting out to correct some what of he calls the erroneous ‘Pavloviana’ generated by Cantania’s article. Pavlov did use a bell, Evans argues: watch the film made in 1925-6, Mechanics of the Brain, shot in Pavlov’s laboratory, which clearly shows ‘dogs which dripped saliva at the sound of a bell.'7 There is a kind of beauty to the fact that Mechanics of the Brain is a silent film.


How to Make a Bell

The art of bell-founding, originally practiced in the monasteries, passed gradually into the hands of a professional class who, in England and the Low Countries especially, gradually worked out the principles of construction, the correct mixture of metals, lines and proportions, which are now generally accepted as necessary for making a good bell.8 


Drawing materials
Metal: Copper and tin (4 to 1) Wood
Goat’s or calves’ hair

The bell should first be designed on paper according to the scale of measurement. Then, a crook is made, which is a kind of wooden compass. The legs of the compass should be curved to match the shape of the inner and outer sides of the bell respectively — leaving between them a space of the exact form and thickness of the bell (the thickness of the bell’s edge should be about one- tenth of its diameter, and its height is twelve times its thickness). The compass is then pivoted on a stake that has been driven into the bottom of the casting pit. A stuffing of brickwork is built round the stake, leaving room for a fire to be lighted within. Next, the outside of this stuffing is padded with a mixture of soft fine clay and calves’ hair. The inner leg of the compass is run round it, so that it takes on the exact shape of the inside of the bell. This is called a core, and should be well smeared with grease. A false clay bell is fashioned over the core, and then covered with a mantle: thicker layers of clay. The fire is lit, and the whole baked hard, producing the sham clay bell. The false bell is then broken up, leaving a space between the mantle and the core the shape of the future bell. Finally, the metal is boiled and run molten into the mould. A large bell will take several weeks to cool. When extricated it ought to be scarcely touched and should hardly require tuning. This is called its maiden state: a latent generator of sound and stories; untapped potentiality. 


1 Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed. 1919-11
2 Percival Price, Bells and Man (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p.ix.
3 The dreamer is F.W. Hildebrant, the passage quoted in Sigmund. Freud, the Interpretation of Dreams (1900), translated by James Strachey, The Penguin Freud Library, Vol. 4 (London: Penguin, 1991), p89.
4 ibid p.
5 See Price, Bells and Man, p.144.
6 A.C. Cantania, ‘Query: Did Pavlov’s Research Ring Any Bells?’ PSYCOLOQUY Newsletter, June 1994.
7 Rand B. Evans, ‘Correcting Some Pavloviania Regarding “Pavlov’s Bell” and “Pavlov’s Mugging,”’ American Journal of Psychology, Spring 1997, Vol.110:1, 115-125, p.117.
8 Recipe adapted from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed. (1919-11). 

Commissioned for Relay

Professor Kate Briggs teaches the translation workshop component of the Master’s in Cultural Translation at The American University of Paris.

Between 2005 and 2008 she was postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of Dublin (Trinity College) where she devised courses for and taught on the Masters in Literary Translation and Comparative Literature.

She also teaches creative writing at Paris College of Art and is a writing tutor at Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam. 

She is writing a book on theories of the practice of literary production – speculative work on how literary writing is or might be written – and has related interests in the visual arts, particularly conceptual work engaged in documenting the creative process and / or investigating the relationship between prescription and execution. She is also a practising translator.