When the melodies of "Imagine" by John Lennon, "Scarborough Fair" or "Be Thou My Vision" ring out over Allegheny College, it's just another day on campus. Yet, many have no idea they're listening to a 100-year-old instrument.
Bill Pugh, technician and historic preservationist, recently serviced and brought the century-old tower chimes system in Allegheny's Ford Chapel back to its original splendor. Revealed through Pugh's cataloging, the college's 14-note set of Deagan Company tower chimes is one of some 440 systems ever built and less than 10 of this kind surviving to the present day. They are currently the oldest functioning set in the country.
The peals of chime music returned to campus partially thanks to junior music major Jacob Sutter. Playing piano for chapel services, Sutter was approached by Campus Chaplain Jane Ellen Nickell about adding the chimes to his repertoire. The chimes are attached to a small piano-like keyboard. The keys, when pressed, correspond to strikers up in the tower, which hit the matching chime. The instrument also has a motor generator, which supplies the electricity needed to power the strikers.
"It's really exciting because they're so widely heard," Sutter said. "They're so loud. It's exciting to be able to play them and share the music with so many people."
The chimes were originally installed in September 1918 as a gift from alumni in recognition of then-President William Crawford's 25 years of service to the college, according to Nickell. They're not the only chimes sounding during the day, however. Bentley Hall has a recording of chimes that plays the Allegheny alma mater on the hour.
"The first time Jacob played these was on a Sunday," Nickell said. "I think we played them after chapel, so it was 12:30. People got very concerned that the Bentley chimes were off schedule because he played the alma mater."
Sutter said people are pleasantly surprised when they find out a real person plays the chimes. The keyboard is a little over an octave except there are two black keys not included, which makes choosing songs a challenge. Sutter has blended hymns with popular hits, mentioning the easier they are to sing, the easier they are to play.
"There are are only 14 notes," Sutter said. "You're limited on what you can play because of the range of the instrument. You can't play more than one note at a time, and you have to hold it down long enough for it to sound, so there's a lot of timing in it."
In addition to general on-site service, Pugh also installed a safety timer on the system to prevent the motor generator from being left running. The timer automatically turns off the generator after 30 minutes, which prevents the motor from burning out.
"Hopefully, they'll still be ringing in 50 years," Pugh said. "They will be if you take care of them. I'd like to encourage people to keep these things going. They're a wonderful instrument as well as wonderful history."
Nickell has already been in contact with Kevin Dill, music director at First Presbyterian Church in Meadville and part-time instructor at Allegheny, and Music Professor James Niblock about continuing on the tradition after Sutter graduates. Nickell said she'll find another student or play the chimes herself over the summer.
"I'm a musician myself, and I really love Ford Chapel, and to know that we had these hidden gems up in the bell tower waiting to be called back into song has been an exciting thing for me," Nickell said.