The title of this article is an excerpt from a poem by John Donne (1572-1531). Donne believed that no one is an island and he used bell imagery in a variety of contexts, ranging from bells being rung for religious purposes or to pronounce the beginning or end of an event. From ancient times, bells, chimes or gongs were thought to bring luck. There is a particularly interesting history of bells, that began in the 1800s, when a bell and battery, was introduced into England’s University of Oxford. The same bells and battery have endured the test of time for the past 175 years. Although their ring is somewhat muffled, they continue to this day. Neither the bells nor the battery has ever been replaced. This odyssey of two oscillating bells, at Oxford, is fascinating and apparently defies the principles of science.
How have two bells been ringing continuously for 175 years? The truth of the matter is no one knows why! Physics professors at Oxford have explained that this scientific mystery may not be solved too soon.
When Robert Walker was a professor of physics in the mid 1800s, the University of Oxford was in possession of something remarkable. A battery designed to propel a hanging metal ball quickly back and forth between two small bells. The metal ball has continued the same action, between the two bells, for this amazing period of time. The "Oxford Electric Bell" continues to ring and is believed to have rung over ten billion times.
The battery was placed at the University’s Clarendon Laboratory. The Guinness Book of World Records has described it as the " World’s most durable battery." No one knows how this incredible phenomenon has been possible. Writer Jason Koebler explains that dismantling the device could ruin the entire arrangement.
AJ Croft, a former researcher at the Clarendon Laboratory, wrote in the European Journal of Physics, 1984, that the bell did not necessarily start as an experiment. Subsequent to its purchase, a researcher allowed it to continue ringing. Oxford University asserts that there is evidence that the battery and bells may have been installed as early as 1825.
The composition of the batteries reveals dry piles, or voltaic units, which were developed in the early 19th century by a priest and physicist, Giuseppe Zamboni. There are alternating discs of silver, zinc, sulphur and other materials to generate low currents of electricity. Koebler’s interesting observation articulates: " We are unsure about the composition of some components, but it is clear that the outer coating is of sulphur which seals the cells and electrolyte."
Questions arise: Are people, who live nearby, disturbed? Luckily the tones of the bells do not sound like a frantic alarm clock. The sound is barely audible because of a very low charge. The metal ball very delicately vibrates between both bells. We are reminded of Newton’s laws on motion, which, interestingly, seems to resonate the back and forth movement of the metal ball, from where emanates the ringing of each bell.
Newton’s law states that when a force acts on an object, there is an equal force (called a reaction) that acts in the opposite direction. Hence, the action and reaction are equal and opposite, thus explaining the constantly moving metal ball. Till date, this world famous bell is evocative of the " longest running scientific experiment," according to Mental Floss, a publication, in the USA, whose website attracts ten million users a month. The antique battery at Oxford is the world’s most durable battery delivering " Ceaseless Tintinnabulation."
But Newton’s law of motion But Newton’s law of motion cannot explain the mysterious sections that exist within the battery. Researchers will have to wait until the battery finally or eventually completely loses its charge; conversely, the ringing mechanism could just fall apart, one day, due to old age.There is the second longest experiment in the world, after the Oxford Electric Bell.
The Beverly Clock at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, which works with the help of changes in atmospheric pressure and continues to tick despite being last, rewound in 1864. The fact that both "longest running experiments" are safely ensconced within the walls of educational institutions, in two different countries, is a marvel of history.