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hpr4048 :: Today I learnt: Ship’s Bells

A brief history and description of ship's bells for timekeeping

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Hosted by Trey on 2024-02-07 is flagged as Clean and is released under a CC-BY-SA license.
ships bells, time, naval, clocks, timekeeping. 2.
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Duration: 00:06:40

Today I Learnt.

A series where hosts speak about recent discoveries they have made which they consider might be of interest to the HPR Community.

Today I learnt: Ship’s Bells

Ahoy thar maties. Eight bells and all’s well! (Spoken with an abysmal pirate accent).

Alright, enough of me poorly impersonating a pirate. As you may or may not know, based on comments in one or more of my previous episodes, I dabble a bit in clock repair. Specifically, mechanical clocks, powered by springs or gravity. My grandfather was a clockmaker, and I remember sitting, as still and quietly as I could, in his shop watching him work. I was fascinated, but I could not ask any questions, make any noise, or touch anything at risk of being told to leave. So, I learned very little, but it did plant a seed deep inside me which would flourish many years after my grandfather passed away.

I plan to do a series about mechanical clocks and some of my experiences with clock repair in upcoming months. This has been simmering on the back burner for quite a while as I debated if it would really be of interest to hackers. My mind creates stories of listeners shouting “Oh for crying out loud! First six episodes about plumbing and now clocks? Get to something interesting!” However, I am pressing on. If you like this episode and want more in the series, please leave a comment. If you would prefer other types of content on HPR, then skip the rest of this episode and record one more suited to your desires or detailing what you would like to hear and why.

Also, you will probably hear the ticking (and maybe striking) of various different clocks in the background of this recording. My new home office space is also the home for close to a dozen clocks in various states of repair. It is challenging to remove their sounds from the recording, and given the subject matter of this series, I am not even going to try to remove them.

Back to the topic. A couple of years ago, I purchased a very inexpensive box of assorted clocks and clock parts from a local seller. These were in various states of disrepair. One item in the advertisement for this box immediately caught my eye. It was a brass Urgos brand “Ship’s Bell” clock. This timepiece was literally dripping with oil, but seemed to be intact, and I started working on it. In a later podcast, I will describe my approach to items like this and what is involved in initially cleaning and evaluating them. Due to life challenges, it took me over a year to get this clock reassembled and working.

With this clock, I learned that ship’s bells do not strike a normal hour count like traditional striking clocks. Instead, their strike directly relates to the time of an historic ship’s watch schedule. According to “The Ship’s Bell”, an article from Naval History and Heritage Command (, early shipboard timekeeping was done through the use of a half-hour glass. The job for one of the ship’s boys was to watch the glass, turn it when it ran out, and then strike the ship’s bell so all onboard would be aware of the time every half hour.

On sea vessels, various persons on duty “Keep watch” at, or around, their station. These include the “Lookout” who was constantly “watching” all around the ship to ensure there was no danger and to alert of any sightings of land or other vessels. ( )

The ship’s bell had many other uses beyond timekeeping, and those are described in detail in the previously mentioned Naval History article. With all this bell ringing, patterns were developed. For timekeeping, this basically broke down to a specific pattern of incrementing strikes every half hour, throughout the ship’s watch. Each watch is a 4 hour long shift, the first five of which are broken down as follows:

  • First Watch, 8pm to Midnight (20:00 to 00:00 hours)
  • Middle Watch, Midnight to 4am (00:00 to 04:00 hours)
  • Morning Watch, 4am to 8am (04:00 to 08:00 hours)
  • Forenoon Watch, 8am to Noon (08:00 to 12:00 hours)
  • Afternoon Watch, Noon to 4pm (12:00 to 16:00 hours)

The remaining 4 hours are broken up into two “Dog Watches”, but those are outside the scope of this discussion. You can learn more about these details in Tom Burden’s article titled “Ship’s Bell Time” and found at

Ship’s bell strikes increment every half hour. At the beginning/end of a 4-hour watch, the bell strikes 8 times, in groups of 2 strikes with a tiny pause in between. Here is an example from my (now working) ship’s bell clock.

{ding}{ding} pause {ding}{ding} pause {ding}{ding} pause {ding}{ding} pause

One half hour into the watch, the ship’s bell will sound a single strike

One hour into the watch, the ship’s bell will sound two strikes

An hour and an half into the watch, the ship’s bell will sound three strikes in the following pattern:

{ding}{ding} {pause} {ding}

At the two hour mark, there will be four strikes, following that same pattern:

{ding}{ding} {pause} {ding}{ding}

Etc… I will not list all of these, but you get the idea. Because the strikes are paired in groups of two, an even number of strikes denotes the top of the hour, and it is easy to count the number of pairs (1, 2, 3, or 4). If the bells end in a single strike (odd number total), you know it is the bottom of the hour.

It seems strange at first, but it can be easily learned in a short amount of time. And now, the phrase I used at the beginning of this podcast, “Eight bells and all’s well” should make sense. Eight bells indicates the end of the watch, and an individual on watch duty is stating that their shift is finished and there was nothing to report.

I hope that you have enjoyed this episode. Your feedback is encouraged, through comments and especially by recording your own HPR episode.

Have an awesome day!


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Comment #1 posted on 2024-02-08 01:00:45 by Clinton Roy


I loved this episode, and would welcome more like t.

Comment #2 posted on 2024-02-08 19:46:11 by brian-in-ohio

great show

Loved this show, please do more on anything to do with time pieces. Dog watches were best defined by Steven Maturin in the Patrick Obrian Master and Commander novels. He said thay called them dog watches 'because they are cur tailed of course'. A masterful play on words. Dog watches are used so that watch times would naturally move to each watch, no one gets stuck doing all the late shifts.

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