The Chapel's belltower is part of all students' daily lives, relentlessly reminding them of the passage of time day in and day out—and yet, no one knows much about how these iconic bells work.

The Chapel, built in the mid-1800s, did not originally have the bell-ringing system that it does today. At first, there was only one bell that was housed in the North Tower (the tower closer to Massachusetts Hall), which was attached to a rope and a wheel.

The bell was made by Blake Bell Company and signaled the beginning and end of each class. Today, this bell is no longer in operation.

The bells that currently ring every quarter of an hour were a gift of two alumni in 1924. William Martin Payson, class of 1874, and Edward Payson, class of 1869, wanted to honor their ancestors, many of whom were graduates or trustees of the College.

These 11 bells were installed in the south tower and could be played with a carillon. However, due to the limited number of bells, only a select collection of melodies could be played at the time.

In 1969, the system used to play the bells was updated so that they did not swing anymore. The class of 1929 gave the College a new electrified pneumatic system that used plungers to strike the bells, rather than relying on the physical force of the individual playing the carillon.

The bell system and bell tower received its most recent update in 2004, when extensive repair was done on the chapel towers to remedy buckling that resulted from leakage in the belfry and towers.

As part of the renovation, each stone in the tower facade had to be documented, evaluated and repaired. Additionally, all of the bells were removed and tuned up by the The Verdin Company, located in Cincinatti, Ohio, which had been maintaining the chapel's bell system.

"When we replaced the bells in the south tower, we put the bell from the north tower with the bells in the south tower, since the north tower is now closed off," said Director of Capital Projects Don Borkowski. "We also acquired three new bells."

The north tower bell, since it is not part of the new bell system, no longer rings. The addition of three more bells, however, gave the college a lot more freedom with song selection.

"Now, if you go to the back of the chapel, in the choir loft, there is a computer system that controls the bell ringing system," Borkowski said. "This can be programmed with up to 200 songs, and the bells can be programmed ahead of time to play certain songs at precise dates and times."

Following the installation of the additional bells in the south tower, the music department worked with The Verdin Company to put several songs into the computer system, including patriotic songs, such as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," music for religious services and Bowdoin-related songs such as the alma mater and "We'll Sing to Old Bowdoin."

In addition to the computerization of the system, a keyboard can also be plugged into a port in the choir loft and can be used to control the bells. There is a similar port at the front of the chapel.

The chapel bells play a supporting role in every student's time at Bowdoin, from the first days of orientation to weekend mornings when they serve as an unsuspecting wake up call, up until commencement. The maintenance of the bells by generous alumni and the College's support of their restoration serve as ringing endorsements for the importance of this historic campus landmark.