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What Is an Electric Bell?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 17, 2024
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An electric bell is a type of bell mechanism that operates with the use of a supply of electricity and some form of electromagnet. Composed of a series of relatively common electrical components, this type of bell system has been used for decades in a number of applications. In recent years, many of these former functions for the mechanical or electric bell have been taken on by technology-driven equipment designed to mimic the sound of the bells without utilizing the same components.

The basic concept of an electric bell involves creating a mechanism that includes a bell or some type of gong as part of the design. In addition to the bell, the device is equipped with a metal arm that is configured with a ball on one end. This ball, known as a clapper, is used to strike the bell repeatedly as a means of producing the series of sounds of the bell clamoring. With an electric bell, the action of the arm and clapper are controlled with the use of wiring and springs that trigger the ringing action, and also bring the action to an end once the cycle is completed.

Electric bells have been in wide use in a number of settings. For most of the 20th century, the bells were included in the basic design for most telephones, serving as the means of alerting subscribers that an inbound call was being received. The bells were also used at railroad crossings, configured to warn anyone attempting to pass over the crossing that a train would be arriving at the crossing in a short amount of time. The electric bell was also used in many factories to signal the beginnings and endings of shifts, providing a similar function at schools. Even safety devices such as home burglar alarms or fire alarms made use of this type of bell mechanism, using electricity supplied by wiring to the devices as the means of activating the ringing mechanism.

Over the years, the introduction of newer technology began to replace the use of the electric bell in many applications. As analog telephones with rotary dials gave way to digital telephones using touch tone services, the ringing mechanism also changed, with many models using what is known as an electronic sounding device rather than an actual bell mechanism. In like manner, computer controlled railroad crossing signals and even simple devices like residential doorbells usually do not rely on the older technology. While still available, devices that make use of the electric bell are not produced in the same quantities as during the early to middle 20th century and are sometimes considered more of a novelty or specialty item.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum , Writer
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including About Mechanics, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments

By Melonlity — On Dec 12, 2014

@Soulfox -- That is not always the case. My ringtone on my smartphone is one that sounds a heck of a lot like an old time bell on a phone from the 1930s or so. If I didn't want that sound, I could pick something that sounds more digitized and modern.

The great thing about those simulated bells is that you can get something that sounds traditional or something that it far removed from tradition. These things can simulate darn near anything, so why limit yourself?

By Soulfox — On Dec 11, 2014

@Markerrag -- I kind of like the traditional, electric bell when it comes to phones, doorbells or anything else. Sure you get the flexibility you mentioned when you go for a simulated bell, but things have gone so far that they don't sound like bells anymore.

Cell phones are a perfect example. Those have gotten so far away from bells that they don't sound like traditional phones anymore.

By Markerrag — On Dec 10, 2014

One of the great things about technology replacing these old bells is that there is a lot of variety available. Here is an example. We have a doorbell in my house that has 40 different chimes that can be selected (for example, we have a Christmas carol play throughout the holiday season).

In the old days, you got one choice for your doorbell chime and that was the one built into the unit. Want to change it without rebuilding the doorbell chiming unit? Good luck.

No thank you. I'll take the simulated doorbell every day of the week because of the flexiblity.

Malcolm Tatum

Malcolm Tatum


Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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