Our laboratory feels fresh and gets most of the natural daylight. This doesn’t mean that a lab day out in the search for a different atmosphere was not a sublime idea.
This year’s destination was the town of Loughborough, a home for approximately 60 000 persons that is situated at 11 miles North of its bigger counterpart the city of Leicester. Although Loughborough featured in the Domesday book which surveyed English and some of the Welsh territories in 1086; the town’s biggest influence as we know it today seems to come from the industrial period. The “Loughborough machine” for example, more commonly known as the bobbinet machine, was the first to produce lightweight but extremely durable textiles based on a specific type of tulle netting known as the bobbinet.
Good industry must benefit from a good transport system. Junctions from the main midlands roads flank Loughborough rendering it accessible by car from the north, the south and the west. The River Soar runs through the east of the town in a north-south axis; and the rail network going from Loughborough railway station serves into most of the United Kingdom’s reachable-by-train destinations.
Our chosen mean of transportation on that day was different. We travelled through the great central railway, a preserved heritage of Leicestershire; via the chuga chuga chugga CHOOO CHOOOO steam train!
Our most important destination was the John Taylor & Co. which started its journey in 1784 and is today the world’s largest bell foundry. It seems that Loughborough’s friendly transport system was an important factor behind its relocation from Oxford in 1839, as one can only imagine the arrangement needed to ship immense bells such as the 16.5 tons “Great Paul”.
Bells are percussion instruments that produce sound by vibrating upon being struck. Such devices have been associated with a number of ancient civilizations around the world with archaeological evidence dating back to 3000 B.C. from Neolithic China. Bells are still important structures in today’s Christian churches, in Buddhist temples as well as in other religious shrines. Visiting Loughborough was an exceptional chance for us to get familiar with the process of making them.
Bell metal is an alloy constituted of copper and tin in a respective ratio of 4 to 1. It is liquefied and then poured in between the spaces that are left by plugging an inner mould into an outer one. The structure is then buried underground, allowing the mixture to slowly dry, and the final result is the wanted hollow bell shape.
Further metallurgical expertise is needed to construct the clapper and the once wooden headstock that is nowadays made of steel for an increased durability. The headstock attaches the bell onto a wooden wheel and such a complex enables the swinging movement resulting in the “Bong” sound each time the clapper strikes the bell’s inner walls.
The complex consists also of a rope that rolls around the swinging wheel and extends downwards to reach the operator’s hands. This one of a kind rope is skilfully made at the foundry using a technique that is known to only two other places worldwide. Eighty-five per cent of the rope’s length is made of polyester while the lower part of the rope consists of hemp cord that is partially surrounded by a mixture of wool and acrylic fibres, combining resistance and comfort in handling. Impressively enough, the only bonds holding the different components together come from the extreme tension applied in the winding process. The production of a single rope takes six to eight working hours.
As is the case in all other musical instruments, the bell needs tuning for it to produce the optimal sound. This is represented by a consistent expression of five main partial tones at each strike: the hum note, the 2nd partial or fundamental, the minor 3rd (tierce), the 5th (quint) and the nominal. Tuning is the last stage and happens when the bell is mounted on a giant lathe as it might have some of its thickness progressively chipped away in order to adjust frequencies.
John Taylor & Co. houses 24 staff members each of them equally crucial to the satisfaction of the more than 100 bells per year demand. The personalisation of most corners in the foundry gives the impression that these individuals have successfully made of their workplace their second home.
That is no different from our laboratory at the University of Leicester. The way in which it is inhabited is definitely an added value. The balance between enough personal space and warm human assistance gives each one of us the unique chance to operate in harmony.
It is hard to accept the departure of some of our colleagues even though movement and change are sometimes the best ways to evolve.
To Pille, Chiara and Dan:
Your second home will always be waiting for you to come back and check on how we are doing. The harmony that we tuned together will be greatly missed.