Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high…
At exactly 12:01 and 5:01 p.m., this tune, made famous by Judy Garland, along with other classics, such as “Tomorrow” from the Broadway musical Annie, plays joyfully for all WPI students, staff, faculty, and visitors to hear. The sound of bells ringing from the heights of Alden Memorial not only “brings cheery encouragement to the weary students,” and “enlightens the atmosphere of the campus,” but also reminds the WPI community of great, long-lasting school traditions. However, few remember the story of how the bells began ringing.
Now a phonographic broadcast system controlled by a microprocessor, the impressive tones were once created by the real bells of a carillon. WPI originally purchased and installed the electric carillon after receiving a gift of $18,000 from Mrs. Isabel Hood Smith of Shrewsbury, widow of William Binns Smith, class of 1908. Smith left the Institute in 1907 as a junior to pursue his career in industrial manufacturing. Smith is credited as a lead developer and manufacturer of the Noble Comb, a circular combing device employed to prepare carded fiber for spinning. The successful businessman served as President and Treasurer of James B. Smith & Sons Inc., Director of the Coca Cola Bottling Co., both of Worcester, and Trustee of the Memorial Hospital.
Although Smith was a non-graduate, the Institute awarded him an honorary doctorate in Engineering in 1949. Always a generous man, Smith was very active in the Alumni Association and gave plentifully to the Alumni Fund. At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, December 14, 1955, three years after his death, the carillon was dedicated to Smith, in his honor, at the WPI-Becker College Glee Clubs’ annual Christmas Program. President Bronwell accepted the gift and Carilloneur June Albright of Chicago manually operated the instrument for the crowd to enjoy.
The original instrument could be controlled by an organ but most of the songs, which included classical music, hymns, folk songs, and traditional music, were on perforated music rolls, played by an automatic player. The tonal range of the instrument was 32 notes, ranging two and a half octaves. According to President Bronwell, the instrument was of the highest quality, and could be compared to similar carillons, such as the models installed at George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia. Any music suitable for bells could be played on this magnificent instrument.
By the 1970’s, the harmonic tradition had died. Luckily, two students, Daniel Farrar (’84) and Student Alumni Society (SAS) Founder Katherine Kruczek (’84), with the help of Lens and Lights, successfully reconditioned the exterior of the instrument and the tradition was revived. WPI then faced an important decision: the school’s administration would have to choose between purchasing replacement bells for the carillon or adopt a broadcast system. Ultimately, the school decided against installing newer bells, activating the electronic broadcast system in 1984.
However, this decision did not pass without dispute. Louis J. Curran Jr., Professor of Music, professed his discontent in letters to the editor in several issues of Newspeak. Prior to the administration’s decision, Curran was in favor of the purchase of real bells; Curran was confident that there were many students and faculty capable of playing the carillon. Curran learned that WPI reportedly received a quote of $500,000 to purchase, move, and install a new carillon. He estimated that it would cost an $18,000 bid to secure a new carillon and an additional $3,500 to transport the instrument. Curran presented a report to the administration later that fall, claiming that moving and installing a carillon from the Atlantic Methodist Church in North Quincy would cost the university a mere $21,500, as he originally estimated. After presenting the report, he was met with a single comment from the administration: who will play them? IMC Supervisor Doug Thompson later explained that this comment implied students would not be present during holidays and school breaks to hear the bells, let alone play them.
Thompson argued the school did not have $21,500 to spend on real bells. Curran and Thompson also disagreed on the quality of the sound from the two proposed systems: while Curran was clearly in favor of a traditional carillon, Thompson insisted real bells sound the same as a tape recorder through speakers and that Curran must have a penchant for the aesthetic of real bells. In the October 2, 1984 issue of Newspeak, Curran argued that the salesperson who sold WPI the electronic system told him that the tower in Alden Memorial was perfectly constructed for a real bell system. While Thompson told Newspeak reporters that the school made a wise decision, Curran felt disheartened. To the music professor, this move represented a decline in interest in the arts and humanities at WPI. According to Thompson, Curran was given his space and the issue was soon resolved.
Despite the controversy surrounding the carillon, the songs played from the speakers in Alden Memorial still remain a beloved WPI pastime, one that connects alumni and students, past and present. Need proof? Just take a step outside at a minute past noon and you will hear it in the uplifting tune, floating through the air:
There’s a land that I heard of, once in a lullaby…
Historical content shared in this blog post and other resources can be found in Curation, Preservation, and Archives, Gordon Library. For more information, please visit the Fellman Dickens Reading Room on the Ground Level or send an email to email@example.com.