Digest>Archives> March 2004

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Fog Bell Striker

By Jim Claflin


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From early times a means of warning mariners was needed during times of reduced visibility from fog and during storms. The earliest signals used may have been produced by cannons but soon bells began to find favor. Keeping the bell ringing was just as important as keeping the lamp lit during periods of heavy fog. The lighthouse light was often useless in this weather and mariners relied on these fog signals to navigate along the coastline.

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In the very early days prior to the invention of mechanical bell strikers, fog bells were rung by striking the bell by hand. The keeper was obliged to manually hit the bell with a sledgehammer for as long as the fog persisted. However. by the 1920’s, bells began to be struck by mechanical means, using a clockwork system. Both the Gamewell Company [noted manufacturer of fire alarm signal apparatus] and the Stevens Company, as well as Daboll and some others manufactured fog bell striking apparatus that soon would be used at most light stations to mechanically ring a fog bell at a predetermined interval. At shore stations, most bells were hung on a specially constructed tower near shore. The earliest fog signal structures were wooden bell towers, later designs included iron construction. The towers were usually a tapering square shape topped by a pyramidal roof. Many times the tower structure was of an open skeleton design, or exposed except for the enclosed upper level area which protected the bell-striking mechanism.

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Within the tower, which provided the height for suspending the weights, a cable ran from a striker to the top of the tower where weights were attached. As those weights slowly fell they would power the striker so that it struck the bell periodically. When the weights hit bottom (usually 45 minutes to an hour and a half later), the keeper was required to crank the weights back to the top to start the process over again. Later, Daboll, Stevens, and Gamewell invented clockworks which were advertised as good for 10,000 blows of the fog bell with one winding, which might spell the keeper from winding for days for a characteristic of a blow every 30 seconds.

On stations built offshore such as caisson and screwpile structures, the fog bell was usually mounted on a timber outside the top half-story of the dwelling (just below the lantern) and struck by machinery mounted on the inside. The striker hammer passed through a slot designed in the wall.

Such striking machinery was available in at least four different sizes to accommodate various bell sizes and thus produce various sound levels. Probably the most common bell size used was the 1000-pound bell, but sizes from 300 to 1500 pound or greater were used. These mechanisms, especially the Gamewell models, were identical to those used in thousands of fire stations and churches across the country to ring bells and to blow steam whistles and can still be found in shops and warehouses today. Shown is a Gamewell medium size striker courtesy Jeff Shook.

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Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. Jim, owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques, may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@lighthouseantiques.net or visit his web site at www.lighthouseantiques.net

This story appeared in the March 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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