WATERTOWN — Seven days a week, the sound of bells playing a concert of hymns emanates from the First Presbyterian Church on Washington Street.
The music, however, is produced by an electronic carillon, not by actual bells.
Stationed in the choir room behind the altar of the sanctuary, the carillon has filled the downtown area with hymns for 30 years and is the longest-running electronic sound system used among churches in the city.
The system is connected to a cable that runs nearly 200 feet high to four horn speakers located at windows in the church’s bell tower.
Parishioner John P. McCreary, 88, said the carillon has been enjoyed by people downtown ever since it was installed.
“It’s a community service, because we’re offering that music and people like to hear it, particularly during the holiday season,” said Mr. McCreary, a member of the church since 1962. “And if anything happened and it was down for a few days, we got all kinds of complaints.”
Church volunteer Linya H. Bell said the carillon lends the downtown area a peaceful quality.
“I think it’s one of the things that make the city distinctive, because it’s a special sound,” she said. “And you don’t hear it in communities where there is such a rush and noise.”
The carillon is automatically timed to play hymnal concerts starting at noon and 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, along with an hourly strike of bells from 7 in the morning until 8 at night. The real church bell, which is cast-iron, is rung only before the Sunday morning service. Also that day, hymn concerts are played at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., and the striking of the hour occurs from 1 to 8 p.m.
The carillon stores hundreds of hymns randomly chosen to be played during the concerts, which are roughly 30 minutes long, according to Carl A. Bingle, church organist. Manufactured by Schulmerich Bells of Sellersville, Pa., the carillon plays the sound of English and Flemish bells in three octaves with a total of 37 notes. It also plays special concerts during the holidays, and hymns are played from every denomination.
“The sound imitates the striking of the Westminster chimes, like Big Ben,” Mr. Bingle said, referring to the House of Parliament clock in London. “It never plays the same concert. It’s always a variety of songs that are pulled from memory cards by random.”
Andrew D. Bristol, who lives in an apartment near the church at 403 Washington St., said he enjoys the sounds of the carillon, but he was surprised to learn the noise is produced electronically and not with real bells.
“I don’t mind it,” Mr. Bristol said as a noon melody was playing one day last month. “It’s not too loud, and I usually wake up to it. To me, it’s kind of a serene sound that’s calming. And I think it reminds people that the church is here.”
The Best Western hotel, located across the street from the church, hasn’t received any negative comments from visitors about the sound of bells, according to desk clerk Raymond E. Jarvis.
“We don’t hear it inside here,” he said. “Maybe some of the guests do, but no one has ever complained.”
Longtime Watertown residents say they can recall hearing concerts since the carillon was installed in 1985, when it operated with large audio cassettes.
The system originally was bought by Donald A. and Genevieve Barbour in memory of James E., their son. After it broke down in 2005, the carillon was replaced in 2009 by the family of the late Leon W. Quick Jr., who died that year at the age of 94. The Quick family donated $5,000 to the church to buy the carillon.
A Watertown High School graduate, Mr. Quick played basketball while he was a student at Duke University. He served in the Merchant Marine as a ship captain during World War II, and later owned a Watertown auto dealership named Quick Motors.
More vulnerable to breakdowns than today’s system, the original carillon had many problems, according to Mary P. Sanford, church historian. Mrs. Sanford, 82, recalled how lightning struck the church’s steeple during a violent storm in December 1986. The carillon was shorted out by an electrical surge during the storm, which burned roughly 30 feet of cables connected to it.
“We were so proud of the carillon when it was installed, until the next year, when lightning struck the steeple,” said Mrs. Sanford, adding that repairs soon were made to the system.
Carillons have been produced by Schulmerich since the company was launched in 1935 by George Schulmerich, according to its website.
Mr. Schulmerich discovered that small rods of cast bronze produced bell tones when struck with miniature hammers. He figured out how to amplify sounds electronically to create what he originally named “carillonic bells.”
Those who listen to the carillon mimicking bells find it hard to believe the sound is electronically produced.
During a tour of the bell tower last month, Kenneth W. Reed, chairman of the church facilities committee, was inside the tower standing next to the loudspeakers when the tower suddenly filled with sound at 11 a.m.
The tone that imitated the bell striking 11 times made it seem like the actual church bell — located about 5 feet below the speakers — was ringing.
“If I weren’t here seeing it coming out of the speaker — in fact I looked down to see if the bell was ringing — it sounds perfectly like a bell,” Mr. Reed said after the sound silenced. “It’s very comforting and peaceful to listen to the old hymns.”
Video featuring the electronic carillon can be viewed at http://wdt.me/church-carillon.