Chime and chime again

It’s spring, and college students sometimes find themselves distracted by, shall we say, studies of a less-serious nature. In honor of April fools, jesters, class clowns, and sophomores everywhere, Jeff Strong ’76 reveals how, 30 years ago, he pulled off the most complicated prank in the annals of Puget Sound high jinks.

As a child, my parents, Helen ’47 and Troy ’48 Strong, told stories of great adventures and clever pranks from their college days. The coveted “Hatchet,” they said, was shown in public only once each year, and this would set off a wild scramble for possession of the mysterious token of Logger pride. After holding it for a few months, the keepers passed it on by hiding it in a hollowed-out book and placing it in the library, which back then was in the basement of Jones Hall.

I also listened, enthralled, as my parents described the Senior Sneak and how difficult it was to spirit the entire senior class away from campus without being discovered. Secret instructions led seniors to their assigned transportation, their cue provided when a radio announcer said, “Time for the time: 7:59.” I loved picturing all the underclassmen waiting in “chapel” (the thrice-weekly assembly of the student body), while the seniors made their way to Lake Sammamish.

It seemed to me that college could not be complete without a steady diet of pranks and schemes and that a really good caper would be worth any amount of preparation. This kind of school was for me, and I entered Puget Sound ready to do my homework.

By my second year, dormmates and I had played a number of tricks on one another, but I was looking for something bigger. I wanted something monumental in scale that would be clever but not destructive.

I had heard that in the ’50s, North Tacoma once awoke to the sound of trains and other sound effects broadcast through the speakers of the university’s carillon system. (I’d also heard that “Doc T” knew immediately which student was responsible.)

If this was true, it meant that the sounds of the university’s chimes were just recordings played through a sound system, and I pondered the possibilities of replacing the tape that such a system must use. But I wanted something more subtle than train sounds. I wanted something new. And I wanted to mess with people’s minds.

That’s when I thought of adding an extra chime at noon. Would anyone notice if the university clock struck 13? To make this happen, I would need to find out where the carillon system was housed and get access to it, then borrow the tape and dub in an extra chime. Alas, the prank turned out not to be so simple: eventually it would take a year and a half to pull off.

Finding the sound of the music
To locate the chime system, I followed my ears to the library tower. But the door at the top of the tower stairway was securely locked, and I could think of no scheme to gain entry from inside. So one night I climbed the outside of the building and clambered onto the roof of the tower. I had done this sort of thing before. When a Frisbee had gone onto the roof of our high school, my friend climbed up to get it and was rewarded with a dozen lost Frisbees. In search of more Frisbee treasure, we climbed school after school and never found another Frisbee, but we did develop an appreciation of the view from high places.

Anyway, there I was on top of Collins Memorial Library. I found two large horn speakers but no other evidence of a carillon. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the rooftop door opened easily from the outside, its lock carefully keeping people off the roof from below while allowing me free entry into the library from above.

Even with this lucky break, all I found was a concrete room and some air conditioning equipment. I was stumped as to how to locate the carillon equipment without arousing suspicion. I tried to act innocent as I asked various library and plant department staff about it, but I got no useful information, and after a few months I figured the project was dead.

In those days, the chimes played music on Sunday afternoons. A music student told me that a person actually played the tunes live at a keyboard in the music building. I was astonished. How could this be true if the carillon was just a sound system playing tapes? This new information gave me a lead to follow.

I located the tiny keyboard one Sunday in a little room near the balcony of Jacobsen Recital Hall. A woman sat at the keys. As she played, the sound of chimes drifted across campus, eerily detached from her keystrokes. She told me how she operated the console and even showed me a paper-scroll player, similar to a player piano. She had never seen the rest of the chime system but thought that it was somewhere upstairs.

Roaming the top floor of the music building, I found only two doors that were not clearly offices or bathrooms. They were locked, so I tried my dorm key. Of course my key didn’t work, but it did go into the lock. I decided I would have to find someone who had access to the proper key and recruit him to the cause.

By this time I had confided in only two friends—Rone Rohe ’78 and Wayne Krafft ’76— and I asked if they knew anyone involved in Jacobsen concerts or any other music building activity. As luck would have it, one had a roommate in the Adelphian Choir who borrowed a key occasionally to get into a practice room. With great trepidation, I explained my project to him and asked if he would help me get ahold of a music building key. He understandably wanted nothing to do with such an illicit endeavor. He was really freaked out, and for a while I thought he was going to blow the whistle on the whole thing. I assured him that I would do no harm, and that I would only trace the key and do nothing with it for at least six months. I wasn’t sure that a tracing would work, but it seemed my only hope.

He reluctantly agreed and was nearly panicked when he met me in the music building the next day. He had asked the secretary for the key, even though his practice room was already open, and he was sure she was suspicious. I gratefully took the master key in my hands and traced it carefully on a piece of paper.

The Proctor Dime Store was run by a nice man who not only copied my dorm key for me but also sold me a couple of blank keys of the same type. With these blanks, a small file, my tracing, and a lot of patience, I made a rough copy of the music building master key.

I don’t know how many times I tried the key unsuccessfully, filing a bit more each time, but finally, amazingly, it worked! The key turned, and I opened the door to find a space that stretched along the sloping rafters above the recital hall ceiling. Near the door were stacked tables, chairs, and janitorial supplies. I explored the narrow space beyond and found what I was seeking. There were two racks of electronic equipment standing 6 feet high in the middle of the floor. Near the top of each was a clear-plastic panel with hinges and a lock. Behind the left panel was a clock face surrounded by adjustable pins whose function I never did understand. The right panel enclosed a plain disk as large as the clock face. I did not know it then but this was the heart of the machine, and it held the secret to achieving my goal.

Inside the racks I found braided wires and relays like old radio or telephone equipment. What I did not find was a tape player.

I was curious to see this machine work and waited eagerly for the top of the hour. When the minute hand reached 12 I heard the click of machinery, and the disk behind the plastic panel began to rotate slowly. More clicks sounded within the cabinets and along the wall behind. Only then did I notice a row of metal boxes mounted on the wall. From them came the sound of real chimes being struck, followed a moment later by amplified ringing drifting across campus from the library speakers! This was not the jukebox I had expected but a big, electronic music box.

The conundrum of the clockwork
I now had the feeling that my idea just could not work. With no tape to alter and no way to control this complex machine, I nearly gave up. Then I noticed a large envelope on top of the cabinet. Inside were complete diagrams, like blueprints, showing the inner workings of the system. The symbols were all Greek to me, but I had new hope as I returned to my dorm room with the large envelope under my arm.

I enlisted the help of another friend who was a real telephone geek. I thought he would know how to read the diagrams, but he had no clue either. Together we puzzled over them and finally settled on one particular page that showed large concentric circles with letters keyed to descriptions at the bottom of the page. I realized that this explained every click of the rotating wheel that controlled the hourly chimes.

The mechanism was not so hard to understand after all. Each hour, the large wheel would make a single rotation. Metal bumps on the back side of the wheel would make contact in sequence with stationary metal strips. These electrical connections caused various actions in other parts of the machine, such as turning on the amplifier or striking a particular chime.

The tolling of the hour was accomplished by a line of 12 bumps on this wheel connected to the chimes. To control the number of strikes, a second line of bumps was positioned after each of the 12. A clock switch would move like an hour hand, connecting only one of these secondary contacts at a time. When that live bump was hit, an electric switch disconnected the chimes so any subsequent contacts would do nothing.

So, to get a 13th chime, I needed an extra bump on the wheel in just the right place after the 12th. I looked carefully at the drawing and there it was! That bump had another function (turning off the amplifier), but it was there. If I could move the wire going to the 13th bump to another bump further along, I could join the 12th and 13th together. Then, whenever bump 12 struck the chime, so would bump 13.

A number of things worried me. How could I get access to those bumps on the back of the disk? How could I make the changes without damaging the system? And how could I turn off the power to the system without messing up its time-keeping? Would my changes damage the system? Would my changes work at all?

I realized that I did not have to work on the disk itself; I could make my changes to the other ends of the wires. In fact, this turned out to be very easy because all the wires connected to screw terminals.

To avoid cutting the power, I would work at night, when the chimes were silent, and I would be careful to not touch the wrong wire.

Almost busted
Late one night we returned to the music building attic with a bag of tools, a high-intensity desk lamp, and the precious diagrams. I carefully located the site of each change, tracing and retracing the wires to be sure, then began work.

I had the panel open and was attaching the last wire when we suddenly froze. We clearly heard the sound of jingling keys outside the door! I quickly turned off the lamp and waited in the dark with my heart pounding. We heard a key slip into the lock and the door opened slowly. We saw the silhouette of a man peering into the room. He reached for the switch and suddenly we stood exposed, tools in hand and eyes wide. The man was wearing the coveralls of the custodial staff, and after a brief pause he said, “Oh! You scared me.”

I exhaled. “You scared us, too,” I said, and then added as calmly as I could, “We’ll be done in a minute.”

“Okay,” he said hesitantly and left the room.

We packed up like lightning, and I put the envelope of diagrams back on top of the cabinet, with each change clearly marked to aid any repairs that might be needed.

Three tests would indicate whether we succeeded. We passed the first when we completed the changes without injury or smoke. The second came at 7:45 a.m. when the first chime of the day rang perfectly. The last test would come at noon.

We gathered outside the library in time for the big moment. Just before the hour, President Phibbs and Dean Davis passed by on their way to the library. We smiled and exchanged greetings.

At last we heard the familiar Westminster tune, and the hour began to toll. One…Two…Three… we counted silently with our fingers…Eleven…Twelve…Thirteen! Right on cue, as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

As tempting as it was to crow about the achievement, we all wanted to see how long it could go on before someone noticed. As I walked to lunch each day, I watched others as the 13th bell sounded and never once saw anyone look up or raise a question.

We began to share the secret more widely among friends, including my physics professor, Fred Slee. But the first public mention didn’t come until an editorial appeared in The Trail on Oct. 1, 1976, the fall after I graduated.

A few years after that the entire carillon went silent. It was eventually replaced with the brighter sounding bells heard today. The 13th chime rang from the spring of 1975 until about 1979. Did you hear it?


Jeff Strong continues to tinker with things electronic as the university’s Web development lead. He also demonstrates an enduring affinity for monumental projects: He was a member of the four-man team that in 2002 built the world’s tallest sand sculpture. Jeff has been a Puget Sound employee for 25 years.