Seven days of silence

U. Hall bell outage goes unnoticed by many

By
Monday, September 15, 2008

The classic riddle of the tree falling in the woods just got a new twist. After decades of faithfully and loudly tolling off class periods, the iconic 300-pound bell atop University Hall fell silent this month – and almost no one noticed.

Facilities Management staff first realized the bell wasn’t functioning on Sept. 4, the second day of classes, and a quick investigation revealed that the steel cable that rings the bell had snapped, according to Director of Maintenance James Coen. (The bell beckoned new students through the Van Wickle Gates during Convocation the day before, but it was unclear if it had rung since.)

A new cable wasn’t delivered and installed until Sept. 11, a full week later. In the meantime, the bell sat mutely atop University Hall; class after class began and ended without the familiar rhythmic tones to mark their passing.

Coen, who came to Brown in 1982, said the outage was the longest he could remember in at least 20 years.

But just before noon on Wednesday, after more than six days of the sentinel’s abrupt silence, most students sitting just a stone’s throw away from the ailing bell had little inkling anything was amiss.

Just across the walk from University Hall, two friends tossed a Frisbee back and forth. Closer to Sayles Hall, a class was coming to an end. The dim buzz of conversation thickened as students trickled out of Wilson Hall and the Salomon Center, but within its cupola over University Hall, the bell remained still.

“I don’t remember,” said Christie Louie ’12, a student in the class, SIGN 0100: “American Sign Language I, II,” when asked whether the bell had been ringing. “I haven’t really paid attention. I guess not.”

Nearby, Tali Rozensher ’09 and Carly Sieff ’09 had just sat down on the grass for lunch. “I usually notice it because I lived in Slater sophomore year,” Rozensher said. But today she’s less sure. “It did ring today, didn’t it?” she asked Sieff. “Did you hear it ring?”

After a moment’s consideration, Sieff said she didn’t think she had.

The 300-pound bell echoes across College Hill as often as twice an hour, reaching the ears of thousands of students. But Associate Professor of Psychology Ruth Colwill, who studies conditioning, says she’s not surprised its regular audience didn’t miss it.

“We tune out a lot of what we consider to be extraneous or irrelevant stimuli,” she said. “Most people don’t need the bell to tell them that a class is over, so it doesn’t mean very much to them.”

Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology Mika MacInnis ’02 PhD’07 said because people on campus are likely to have more reliable ways to keep track of time, the ringing bell is not useful day-to-day, and they’re less likely to register its occurrence – or its absence.

The recent proliferation of cell phones – which automatically link to a universally standardized time source – may have left the campus particularly oblivious to the bell, said MacInnis, who researches time perception.

“I remember this happening a while ago” – MacInnis has been on College Hill since 1998 – “and people noticed,” she said. “The first day the bell was out, practically by the time the bell was out, I had noticed something was up.”

MacInnis thinks that’s because cell phones were less “ubiquitous” then. “We were more dependent on it as a time marker then than we are now,” she said.

The bell’s absence might only be that noticeable now if a student left for class without his cell phone or watch and had to depend on the bell to know if he was late, Colwill said. “It’s a far less salient event unless you are using it to direct your behavior.”

If Colwill is right, then Lauren McShane ’10 and Chloe LeMarchand ’09, sitting on the Main Green Wednesday afternoon, may be among the few students who still hang on the bell’s every ring. They were both confident the bell hadn’t been ringing lately.

“No,” LeMarchand said. “It didn’t ring, which is strange.”

“I thought about it earlier this week,” McShane agreed. “I noticed in the morning” on the way to a 9 a.m. class. “Don’t they usually ring it at 8:50?”

The pair also said they had noticed the absence of the bell when, in classrooms near the Green, their professors droned on past the end of class without its familiar sound wafting through a window.

Zach Marcus ’10 also noticed the broken bell almost immediately, during the first week of classes. “There were a few classes that would sort of go to a point where I would think it would be over, but there would be no signal,” he said, adding that he’s always had a particular affinity for the bell. “It’s something that I’ve always enjoyed as part of being at Brown. I just particularly like the idea of having that sound.”

Marcus mentioned his observation to some of his friends. “Some people were sort of like, ‘Yeah, I haven’t heard it,'” he said. “But I was surprised people weren’t more aware of its absence.”

Several residents of Slater Hall also said they had noticed the silence almost immediately – the north end of the building sits just a few feet from University Hall, and its residents are among the students who hear the bell most clearly, most frequently.

Ruth Heindel ’10, who just returned to Slater for a second year, said the bell’s absence has impacted her life. “Living in Slater, you don’t have to pay attention to the time as much,” she said. “I’ve definitely noticed it and I have missed it.”

Heindel may owe her quick realization to her regular, long-term exposure to the sound. That’s a key ingredient of the type of intensive conditioning necessary before a student would find the bell’s silence conspicuous, Colwill said.

But from his first-floor office in University Hall, Deputy Provost Vincent Tompkins ’84 is within earshot of the bell most of the day, and even he said he was surprised to learn the bell had been out for nearly a week – as were many of his University Hall coworkers. “I usually notice the bell,” he added. “When it rings, that’s when I look out my window and see hundreds of students crossing the Green.”

But today? “I would honestly say I haven’t noticed,” Tompkins said.

Neither Tompkins nor any of nearly a dozen other University Hall employees approached by The Herald Wednesday afternoon seemed to know who or what in the building might be responsible for their metallic upstairs neighbor. (“I assume it’s either a small gnome” or “something electric that rings it,” Tompkins offered.)

That’s because, while the bell is indeed run by a computer, it’s not actually located within the building. So where is the little machine that keeps the bell ringing day after day (except, it turns out, when it doesn’t)?

“I can’t tell you that,” Coen said. If the right group of sufficiently bright students were armed with the knowledge, he said, they could cause mischief.

But Coen did confirm that workers replaced the cable Thursday, ending the first time the bell had been, by his estimation, “out of service for any extended period of time” since the 1980s.

By 2:30 p.m. Thursday, with a fresh cable installed and its undisclosed nerve center sending the proper signals afresh, the bell was swinging away as usual, sounding out 14 full-throated clangs before trailing off. It was a sunny afternoon, and the Main Green was crowded. No one seemed to pause to take note.