Oxford Electric Bell

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The Oxford Electric Bell in December 2009
Charged by the two piles, the clapper moves back and forth between the two bells.

The Oxford Electric Bell or Clarendon Dry Pile is an experimental electric bell that was set up in 1840 and which has run almost continuously ever since, apart from occasional short interruptions caused by high humidity.[1] It was "one of the first pieces" purchased for a collection of apparatus by clergyman and physicist Robert Walker.[2][3] It is located in a corridor adjacent to the foyer of the Clarendon Laboratory at the University of Oxford, England, and is still ringing, though inaudibly, because it is behind two layers of glass.


The experiment consists of two brass bells, each positioned beneath a dry pile (a form of battery), the pair of piles connected in series. A metal sphere approximately 4 mm in diameter is suspended between the piles, and rings the bells by means of electrostatic force. As the clapper touches one bell, it is charged by one pile, and then electrostatically repelled, being attracted to the other bell. On hitting the other bell, the process repeats. The use of electrostatic forces means that while high voltage is required to create motion, only a tiny amount of charge is carried from one bell to the other, which is why the piles have been able to last since the apparatus was set up. Its oscillation frequency is 2 hertz.[4]

The exact composition of the dry piles is unknown,[3] but it is known that they have been coated with molten sulphur to prevent effects from atmospheric moisture and it is thought that they may be Zamboni piles.

At one point this sort of device played an important role in distinguishing between two different theories of electrical action: the theory of contact tension (an obsolete scientific theory based on then-prevailing electrostatic principles) and the theory of chemical action.

The Oxford Electric Bell does not demonstrate perpetual motion. The bell will eventually stop when the dry piles are depleted of charge if the clapper does not wear out first.[5][6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ord-Hume, Arthur W. J. G. (1977). Perpetual Motion: The History of an Obsession. George Allen & Unwin. p. 172. 
  2. ^ "Walker, Robert". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/38098.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. ^ a b "Exhibit 1 - The Clarendon Dry Pile". Department of Physics. Oxford University. Retrieved 11 March 2013. 
  4. ^ Oxford Electric Bell, Atlas Obscura.
  5. ^ The World's Longest Experiment, The Longest List of the Longest Stuff at the Longest Domain Name at Long Last.
  6. ^ The Latest on Long-Running Experiments, Improbable Research.

Further reading[edit]