It may surprise many U.S. citizens today that the famous Liberty Bell itself was "almost" British. American colonies, not yet industrialized, often sought British expertise for needed work.
In 1751, the Province of Pennsylvania sought a bell for its State House to "call the public together." Key members of the Pennsylvania Assembly sent a letter to their London-based colonial agent, Robert Charles, to make an appropriate purchase. Charles found a source: Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Established in 1570 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the foundry is currently the oldest existing British manufacturing company. As it does today, in the 1700s the foundry specialized in casting and forging bells and their associated fittings.
Just 10 months after Pennsylvania sent its request, September 1, 1752, the new Bell arrived in Philadelphia. Weighing about a ton, the Bell measured roughly 12 feet around the bottom lip and seven-and-a half-feet around its crown.
But, the Bell had a difficult start. It was not hung for six months, and when finally placed into position at the State House steeple in March 1753, the Bell cracked on the first test stroke of its clapper.
Some blamed flaws in the Bell's casting. Others complained the metal was too brittle. Whitechapel's own history describes the American reaction this way: "(t)hey did not appreciate that Bell metal is brittle and relies on this to a great extent for its freedom of tone."
Two Philadelphia foundry workers, John Pass and John Stow, then offered to recast the Bell. Upon melting it down for recasting, the two tried to make the new Bell less brittle by adding an ounce-and-a-half of copper to each pound of material from the old Bell.
The result was less than spectacular. Hung in April of 1753, the new Bell's tone displeased many. Soon afterward, it was sent back to Pass and Stow.
In June, 1753, a third version of the Bell was hung in the State House steeple, and tested. The tone was not much better, according to Assembly Speaker Isaac Norris. In fact, he went so far as to urge Whitechapel in London to cast another Bell for his provincial capital. The new Whitechapel Bell arrived in May, 1754. It also suffered bad reviews. Most agreed it sounded no better than Pass and Stow's second recasting of the original Whitechapel Bell.
Resigned to their fate, it appears, the Pennsylvania Assemblymen agreed to keep both Bells. The newer Whitechapel Bell was hung in the attic of the State House under the roof to ring the time for local residents. The older Pass and Stow Bell was to remain in the State House steeple to be used for calling the Assembly together and summoning people on special occasions and events. The State House was many years later renamed Independence Hall, and the steeple Bell would come to be known as the Liberty Bell.
Some 200 years later, during America's bicentennial anniversary of its independence from Great Britain, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was commissioned by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the British government to cast the Bicentennial Bell, which resides in Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia and bears the inscription:
FOR THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
FROM THE PEOPLE OF BRITAIN
4 JULY 1976
LET FREEDOM RING
That same year, according to the foundry, 30 or so lighthearted American "demonstrators" formed outside the foundry building in mock protest over the Bell's defects. They carried placards proclaiming "WE GOT A LEMON" and "WHAT ABOUT THE WARRANTY?" In the same spirit, the foundry claims to have told the protestors they would happily replace the Bell, "as long as it was returned to us in its original packaging."
** Photo Credits: Peter West, National Science Foundation