Today, some 2000-year-old bells reveal a secret.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Just after the turn of this
century, archaeologists started finding curious
sets of bronze bells in tombs throughout China.
They range from 2000 to 3600 years old, and they
have an odd shape. They look like truncated cones
that've been slightly squashed -- something like
our cowbells -- but they don't have clappers. They
were meant to be struck. They're called Zhong
bells. Thousands of these bells had been unearthed
by the late 1970s, and their strange secret still
hadn't yet come to light.
The secret was actually seen and missed in 1957
when the National Music Research Institute in China
played a set of these bells in concert. The players
were rehearsing a piece with the unpromising title
The East is Red. The E-bell was
missing in one octave. But then a player found he
could get that sound by striking the C-bell on its
side. He found that the bell played two tones, a
That was taken as a coincidence. But twenty years
later, Chinese musicologists, examining a set of
these bells, discovered that every bell in the set
had the same property -- it had two tones, either a
third or a minor third apart. Then they found that
many of these bells even had marks on the side to
show players where to strike the bells to get the
two tones. Each bell was, in fact, meant to be two
bells in one.
The importance of this discovery is clearer if we
realize that the Western cathedral bell was the
result of a thousand years of development. Bells
are very hard to make. Yet these much older Zhong
bells are remarkably sophisticated. They have a
rich tone, but they need far less bronze to get it.
And then they produce two sounds for the cost of
one. We have nothing like them in our vast
instrumental armory today.
Acousticians are just now coming to understand how
they work. Musicians are finding they were really
quite hard to play. And yet this technology --
which also took a thousand years to perfect --
completely died out during the Han period -- during
the rise of the Roman Caesars. It was a remarkable
technology and a remarkable art. Yet it completely
It's easy to look right at something that's very
sophisticated without seeing the sophistication. It
took us eighty years to catch on to these
remarkable, but unassuming, bells. The best
inventions are like that. In the best inventions,
elegance masquerades as simplicity.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds