While villagers settled in for the night in the small town of Annecy-le-Vieux, France, thousands of red sparks from the Christoph Paccard Bell Foundry farther north shattered the darkness. They heralded what the men inside were busily preparing for: the casting of a new bell.
In the morning, after the wooden ovens toiled long enough to bring the bronze to a bubbling boil at 1,200 degrees Celsius, the priest blessed the metal and the new bell it was about to form.
Gurgling and hissing like lava flowing from a volcano, the molten bronze swiftly filled the mold, igniting a storm of steam and spiking the temperature in the small foundry.
As the workers ducked outside for fresh air while the steam dissipated, the priest blessed the bell again, and the long cooling process began.
This scene has repeated itself more than 120,000 times since the first Paccard bell was cast in 1796, according to the foundry’s website, christophpaccard.com.
For seven generations, the technique, skill and mission behind making bells to “pray through beauty” has been passed down from father to son. Their bells hang all over the world, from America to London to Japan, calling communities together, marking time and providing rhythm to ordinary life.
Next May, 49 of those bells will hang in Miller Tower on campus, pealing in celebration of another class of graduates. It will be the first time real bells have hung in the tower.
A sound system was installed in 2014 after freshman council presented a bill requesting “the Miller Tower chimes be turned on with increased volume and, if broken, allow for repairs.”
Since then, electronic chimes have rung out periodically throughout the day. When University President Samuel W. “Dub” Oliver arrived on campus last year, though, he decided to try and take improvements to Miller Tower one step further and find real bells for the structure.
Trustees from the Opha Miller Trust, the same trust that donated the money to build the tower in 2001, asked if they could donate funds for real bells. Oliver and other university administrators then began the process of working with the Paccard foundry to plan the project.
“I think it’s great that the donors, who could have done almost anything with that money, chose to do something really neat for Union University,” said Stan Christoph, president of Christoph Paccard Bell Foundry.
The first step was to determine what bells Miller Tower could physically hold, so Christoph and others from the foundry visited campus in September to measure and determine Union’s options. The largest of the 49 bells will be 1,500 pounds and 40 inches in diameter. The smallest will be only 20 pounds and six inches. Together, the note range will span over the length of a piano octave.
After that, workers at the foundry created molds for each bell, which come in two parts: the core and the cope. The molten bronze will be poured into each mold and then allowed to cool. For the larger bells, cooling can take several days.
Then, the bell will be lifted away from the inner part of the mold, and the outer part will be gently removed with a hammer.
On the 18 largest bells, inscriptions chosen by Oliver, other faculty and some students will be hammered in. Both Old and New Testament verses are included: Psalm 48:14 and John 1:1, among others.
The finished bells will then be polished, tuned and shipped to campus where workers will be on site with a bell frame assembled. They will either carry each bell to the top or use a crane to place it.
Christoph said he most enjoys the days when the bells are finally physically on site, and the community is able to see them for the first time.
“Making the bells is always very interesting, but my favorite day is the day that we get set up on the ground, and the family that donated them can see them,” he said. “That’s very rewarding and very satisfying for us.”
Joshua Veltman, professor of music history, said while the technology of the sound system is excellent, nothing can compare to the rich history and complex sound quality of real bells in the tower.
Bell towers date back to the middle ages when clocks were rare, he said, and villages needed a way to mark time and communicate special events like weddings and funerals. Teams of bell ringers would practice daily to perfect the sequence of rope pulling needed to play each song.
Union’s bells will have the ability to play approximately 20,000 songs automatically, as well as chime hourly, toll during celebrations and play any customized song, such as the university’s official hymn, “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” on a live MIDI keyboard.
Veltman said the flexibility live performances provide will deepen the quality of the music as well as honor the history behind the practice.
“Having bells on a college campus will be an echo of the medieval practice,” he said. “When you have a live performance, there will be little imperfections that give it character.”
Oliver said he is excited for the bells to arrive and hopes they help unify campus life.
“Bells call people together—whether you’re sitting on the Bowld patio reading a book or walking into your botany class,” Oliver said. “Wherever you are, they catch your attention for a moment and draw you toward the same thing.”