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What's the Song That Clock Chimes Play?

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Readers Meg, Wayne, and Rajiv all wrote in to ask about the tune that clock chimes typically play. What’s it called? Where did it come from? How’d it get so popular? Here’s the story.

In 1793, a new clock was installed at St Mary the Great, the University Church of the University of Cambridge. Rev. Dr. Joseph Jowett, the Regius Professor of Civil Law, was asked to compose a chime. With the help of Dr. John Randall, a professor of music, and an undergraduate student named William Crotch, he wrote a melody reportedly based on a movement from George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Messiah.

The chime was dubbed “Jowett’s Jig” by Cambridge students and later became known as “The Cambridge Chimes.” The melody was copied by the men who installed the new clock and bells at the Palace of Westminster in the mid-1800s. (The clock, bells, and sometimes even the clock tower are commonly collectively known as “Big Ben,” though the nickname originally referred to just the 13½-ton hour bell, named for engineer Benjamin Hall, who oversaw its installation). From then on, the tune has been known as “The Westminster Chimes” or “Westminster Quarters.”

Edmund Beckett Denison, who designed the movement mechanism for the Westminster clock, said of the chimes:

"The repetition of four ding dongs can give no musical pleasure. The case is different with the Cambridge and Westminster quarter chimes on four bells, and the chime at the hour is the most complete and pleasing of all. It is singular that these beautiful chimes had been heard by thousands of men scattered all over England for 70 years before anyone thought of copying them, but since they were introduced in the Great Westminster Clock, on a much larger scale and with a slight difference in the intervals, they have been copied very extensively, and are already almost as numerous as the old-fashioned ding dong quarters."

The tune's prominence at the famous clock tower led to it being copied for small and large clocks worldwide (plus doorbells and school bells), to the point where it might be the only tune people think of when clock chimes are mentioned. Daniel Harrison, a music theorist and Chairman of the Department of Music at Yale University, writes that the tune's popularity also “certainly owes much to the attractive melodic sequence, but perhaps more to sentimental associations of British imperial pomp and circumstance, reinforced by the use of [the Quarters] by the BBC World Service for many years to preface the top-of-the-hour world news report.”

Is there something that you've always wondered? Email your questions to askmatt@mentalfloss.com.

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Why Is Soda Measured in Liters?
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Never a nation to fall in line, America is one of the few countries to resist the metric system. We stubbornly measure distance in miles and weight in pounds. So what’s with those two-liter bottles of soda?

First, a clarification: Soda is far from the only substance we measure in metric units. Heck, it’s not even the only beverage. Wine, liquor, and bottled water are sold by the milliliter. The healthcare field is all about metric units, too, from cholesterol levels to prescription, over-the-counter, and supplement dosages. We run 5-kilometer races, ride on 215-millimeter tires, and use 8-millimeter cameras, or at least we used to.

In most other things, we determinedly cling to our imperial measurements. Attempts to convince Americans to join the rest of the metric-measuring world have been met with great resistance.

Ken Butcher of the National Institute of Science and Technology has been working with the government’s tiny Metric Program for years. Speaking to Mental Floss back in 2013, Butcher explained that we’re so entrenched in our way of doing things that switching measurement systems now would be both chaotic and expensive.

"If we were going to start a new country all with the metric system, it would be easy," he said. "But when you have to go in and change almost everything that touches people’s everyday life and their physical and mental experience, their education, and then you take that away from them—it can be scary."

Here and there, though, when it’s convenient, we have been willing to budge. The soda bottle is a good example. Until 1970, all soft drinks in the U.S. were sold in fluid ounces and gallons, mostly in glass bottles. Then the plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle came along, and soft drink makers decided it was time for a product redesign.

The redesign process coincided with two key factors: a short-lived wave of government interest in going metric, and the burgeoning environmental movement.

The folks at PepsiCo decided to meld all three into its exciting new vessel: a lightweight, cheap, recyclable, metric bottle, with built-in fins so it could stand up on supermarket shelves. Two liters: the soda size of the future.

The two-liter bottle took off. The rest of the soft drink world had no choice but to get on board. And voila: liters of cola for all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Where Is the Hottest Place on Earth?
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The summer of 2017 will go down as an endurance test of sorts for the people of Phoenix, Arizona. The National Weather Service issued an extreme heat warning, and planes were grounded as a result of temperatures exceeding 120 degrees. (Heat affects air density, which in turn affects a plane’s lift.)

Despite those dire measures, Phoenix is not the hottest place on Earth. And it’s not even close.

That dubious honor was bestowed on the Lut Desert in Iran in 2005, when land temperatures were recorded at a staggering 159.3 degrees Fahrenheit. The remote area was off the grid—literally—for many years until satellites began to measure temperatures in areas that were either not well trafficked on foot or not measured with the proper instruments. Lut also measured record temperatures in 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2009.

Before satellites registered Lut as a contender, one of the hottest areas on Earth was thought to be El Azizia, Libya, where a 1922 measurement of 136 degrees stood as a record for decades. (Winds blowing from the nearby Sahara Desert contributed to the oppressive heat.)

While the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) acknowledged this reading as the hottest on record for years, they later declared that instrumentation problems and other concerns led to new doubts about the accuracy.

Naturally, declaring the hottest place on Earth might be about more than just a single isolated reading. If it’s consistency we’re after, then the appropriately-named Death Valley in California, where temperatures are consistently 90 degrees or above for roughly half the year and at least 100 degrees for 140 days annually, has to be a contender. A blistering temperature of 134 degrees was recorded there in 1913.

Both Death Valley and Libya were measured using air temperature readings, while Lut was taken from a land reading, making all three pretty valid contenders. These are not urban areas, and paving the hottest place on Earth with sidewalks would be a very, very bad idea. Temperatures as low as 95 degrees can cause blacktop and pavement to reach skin-scorching temperatures of 141 degrees.

There are always additional factors to consider beyond a temperature number, however. In 2015, Bandar Mahshahr in Iran recorded temperatures of 115 degrees but a heat index—what it feels like outside when accounting for significant humidity—of an astounding 163 degrees. That thought might be one of the few things able to cool Phoenix residents off.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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