The Olympic Bell was commissioned and cast for the 2012 London Olympic Games, and is the largest harmonically-tuned bell in the world. The bell is cast in bronze bell metal and is two metres high with a diameter of 3.34 metres, and weighs 22.91 tonnes (22 tons 3 quarters 13 lbs: Bellringers normally calibrate bells in terms of UK tons, hundredweights and quarters.)
In September 2011 the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, a few miles from the Olympic Stadium, was commissioned to make the bell. The Foundry completed its design, profile, lettering and tuning. However, it was no longer able to cast such a large bell (its furnace capacity is 8 tonnes, as the large Victorian era bells had gone out of fashion), and so subcontracted casting to Royal Eijsbouts of the Netherlands. There was some controversy over using a non-British firm, as Taylor’s Bell Foundry in Loughborough had also tendered to cast the bell. The hammer mechanism and hanging framework were made by other firms and twenty companies in three countries were eventually involved with its production. The bell was installed and tested in the stadium at midnight on 1 June 2012. It was designed to be as large as possible but needed to fit through the athletes’ tunnel; when it arrived there were only a few inches to spare.
The bell is the second heaviest in Europe, after St Petersglocke in Cologne Cathedral and the largest harmonically tuned bell in the world. Its main note (in campanology, its 'hum tone') is a B note, and so it has the lowest tone in the world. It is also 30 cm wider than the previously-largest bell in Britain, 'Great Paul' at St Paul’s Cathedral cast by Taylor’s in 1881.
The bell is inscribed with "London 2012" and a line from Caliban's speech in The Tempest: "Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises", which featured in the Olympics opening ceremony spoken by Kenneth Branagh. The other side bears the legend "Whitechapel" and the Foundry's coat of arms.
Bradley Wiggins, who had won the Tour de France five days earlier, opened the ceremony by 'ringing' the bell. This was symbolic as the hammer was actually moved mechanically: one journalist noted "He may be a superhuman athlete but even Bradley Wiggins isn’t capable of setting the Olympic Bell’s monumental half-ton clapper in motion by hand!" The bell was also rung later in the ceremony, including just before Paul McCartney's performance of "Hey Jude". McCartney blamed his faltering start on the unexpected loud sound of the bell, as he had forgotten it was going to be rung.
The bell also featured in music within the ceremony, such as in "And I Will Kiss". The bell was recorded at night, in the rain during rehearsals; sound engineers had to ask for work to stop for half an hour to successfully record it.
The bell hung in the Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony. It was then moved to make way for the Olympic cauldron, and stored in the Olympic Park. The Olympic Park re-opened in July 2013, and in May 2016 the bell was returned and reinstalled on a supporting structure just outside the Olympic Stadium. After 200 years it is due to return to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry for retuning.
"Bells ring out the changes of our days. They call us to wake, to pray, to work, to arms, to feast and, in times of crisis, to come together. Almost everyone in Britain lives within a sonic parish. Anyone born within hearing of the Bells of St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside, London, has the right to call themselves 'cockney' ... Above all, bells are the sound of freedom and peace. Throughout World War II all of Britain's bell towers were stilled, to be rung only in case of emergency. They hung in dusty silence until the day came when they could ring in the peace."
Opening ceremony programme, page 13.