Have You Heard of the Oxford Electric Bell?

The Oxford Electric Bell in December 2009 The Oxford Electric Bell or Clarendon Dry Pile is an experimental electric bell that was set up in 1840 and has rung almost continuously after that. It is located in the foyer of the Clarendon Laboratory at the University of Oxford. CC BY-SA 3.0

The Oxford Electric Bell in December 2009
The Oxford Electric Bell or Clarendon Dry Pile is an experimental electric bell that was set up in 1840 and has rung almost continuously after that. It is located in the foyer of the Clarendon Laboratory at the University of Oxford. CC BY-SA 3.0

The Oxford Electric Bell or Clarendon Dry Pile is an experimental electric bell that was set up in 1840 and which has run almost continuously ever since, apart from occasional short interruptions caused by high humidity. It was “one of the first pieces” purchased for a collection of apparatus by clergyman and physicist Robert Walker. It is located in a corridor adjacent to the foyer of the Clarendon Laboratory at the University of Oxford, England, and is still ringing, though inaudibly, because it is behind two layers of glass.

“The Clarendon Dry Pile was purchased by Robert Walker (Professor of physics 1839 – 1865) and bears the label in his handwriting “Set up in 1840,” though a later note indicates that it may have been constructed some 15 years earlier. It consists of two voltaic “dry-piles,” covered with an insulating layer of sulphur, connected in series and, at their lower ends, to two bells. Between the bells is suspended a metal sphere about 4mm in diameter which is attracted alternately by the bells and transfers charge from one to the other. The frequency of its oscillation is about 2Hz; so far the bells have been rung of the order of 10 billion times.

The internal construction of the piles themselves remains a matter for conjecture, but records of similar popular curiosities of the period, e.g. Zamboni piles, indicate that they are probably of alternate layers of metal foil and paper coated with manganese dioxide.

Some published reports of the Pile unfortunately refer to it as an example of perpetual motion but the Guinness Book of Records has it under the ‘world’s most durable battery’ delivering ‘ceaseless tintinnabulation.’ It is seen but not heard as the ringing is muffled, in the ground floor display cabinet near the main entrance of the Clarendon Laboratory.”(University of Oxford, Department of Physics)

Design
The experiment consists of two brass bells, each positioned beneath a dry pile, the pair of piles connected in series. A metal sphere approximately 4 mm in diameter is suspended between the piles, and rings the bells by means of electrostatic force. As the clapper touches one bell, it is charged by one pile, and then electrostatically repelled, being attracted to the other bell. On hitting the other bell, the process repeats. The use of electrostatic forces means that while high voltage is required to create motion, only a tiny amount of charge is carried from one bell to the other, which is why the piles have been able to last since the apparatus was set up. Its oscillation frequency is 2 hertz.

The exact composition of the dry piles is unknown, but it is known that they have been coated with molten sulphur to prevent effects from atmospheric moisture and it is thought that they may be Zamboni piles.

At one point this sort of device played an important role in distinguishing between two different theories of electrical action: the theory of contact tension (an obsolete scientific theory based on then-prevailing electrostatic principles) and the theory of chemical action.

The Oxford Electric Bell does not demonstrate perpetual motion. The bell will eventually stop when the dry piles are depleted of charge if the clapper does not wear out first. (Wikipedia)

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in architecture, Bells, British history, Great Britain, real life tales, Uncategorized, Victorian era and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Have You Heard of the Oxford Electric Bell?

  1. Well that is the most useless bell I’ve ever come across šŸ˜€ I’ll stick to the great bell in what is now known as the Elizabeth Tower,

    I’d opt for the Liberty Bell except that it can’t ring out anymore, that’s my favourite; the tears rolled down my face whe I stood before it some years ago.

    • You have had so many interesting experiences, Brian!!!!

      • Muslims make their thingy to Mecca, My mecca was the Steinbeck Museum in Salinas, (My favourite American writer), Pearl Harbor, Yosemite National Park,and The Empire State Building and the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor; Salzburg and Mozarts birthplace; only one left now is Bonn Germany, somehow I don’t think I’ll get there, time was against us when we went to Austria. There was many more but those were a must the rest was a bonus.

        I suppose thats more what they now call Bucket List so I can’t complain I’ve done more than most when it comes to Bucket lists.

  2. As an aside I do think it should be every Americans ambition to stand before the Liberty Bell and feel all those great men around you and also Pearl Harbor as a pilgramage for want of a better word

  3. I have visited the Liberty Bell’s site. The only time I was in Hawaii was when I chaperoned dancers performing in the Hula Bowl.

  4. Naturally I took several photographs of the Liberty Bell but I refused to let my wife or my Pa friend take a picture of me and the bell, it kind of struck me as sacriligous and an insult to the bell and what it represents. They considered me as odd šŸ™„

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