Having just celebrated Independence Day in the U.S., I thought it appropriate to strike a historical note in this month’s column. I hope you will forgive the departure from my usual literary meanderings about manufacturing to take a look at an icon in American history.

While on vacation in the U.K. earlier this year, I visited the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (WBF) in London. It was something of a personal pilgrimage for me. WBF is thought to be Britain’s oldest manufacturing company, having been established in 1570 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. In fact, one bell historian has traced WBF’s roots back to Master Founder Robert Chamberlain in 1420 during the reign of Henry V. 

In 1751, the Pennsylvania Assembly decided to order a bell from Whitechapel to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges, Pennsylvania’s original Constitution. The bell was to hang in the State House (now Independence Hall) steeple. It arrived in Philadelphia on Sept. 1, 1752, but it was not hung until March 10, 1753, on which day one official wrote, “I had the mortification to hear that it was cracked by a stroke of the clapper without any other violence as it was hung up to try the sound.”

The cause of the break was attributed either to flaws in the casting or, as they thought at the time, to being too brittle. Two Philadelphia foundrymen, John Pass and John Stow, were given the cracked bell to re-cast with the addition of more copper to make it less brittle. The new bell was raised in the belfry on March 29, 1753. Nobody was pleased by the sound of it, however, so Pass and Stow again re-cast it. On June 11, 1753, the new bell was raised again, but the sound was still poor.

This disappointing result prompted another order to Whitechapel for yet another bell, whose tone also disappointed. So, the second Pass and Stow bell that we now know as the Liberty Bell was left hanging in the steeple and the new Whitechapel bell was placed in the cupola on the State House roof and attached to the clock to sound the hours.

Now sadly silent, but proudly on display in Philadelphia, the Liberty Bell tolled frequently in its day to call the Assembly together and the people to special events. Alas, it did not toll on July 4, 1776, to announce the birth of a new nation as is often misrepresented. The final tolling of the bell celebrated George Washington’s birthday in 1846, after which the crack that made it mute expanded beyond repair.

Back in Whitechapel, business continues as usual to this day. The foundry’s other famous bells include the Great Bell of Montreal and Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster. Cast in 1858, Big Ben is the largest bell ever cast at Whitechapel, weighing in at 13.5 tons.

The metalworking icon we know as the Liberty Bell, having rung its last much more than a century ago, still wrings feelings of freedom from those privileged to know it.