If American commerce were defined by a single sound, what would it be?
New York Stock Exchange corporate archivist Pete Asch has a suggestion: The ring of the exchange’s iconic bell, which ushers in the official start of the trading day weekday mornings and marks the end of the trading day in the afternoon.
“It’s as American as you can get,” Asch said. “When you think of United States business, you think of the opening bell.”
The NYSE, which is celebrating its 225th anniversary this year, recently completed its “Free the Bell” project: renovations that moved the bell’s location from the back of the NYSE’s “Bell Podium,” where it was largely hidden from view, to a prominent place at the front of the podium overlooking the trading floor.
It may fascinate many to learn that the bell had been largely out of sight until this year, but that’s not the only surprising thing about the bell. Here are 10 more surprising facts.
The NYSE initially used a Chinese gong to ring in the trading day. It was replaced by a brass bell in 1903.
Originally, two bells rang on the floor simultaneously, but the noise proved too loud, so one of the bells was later moved to a different room at the exchange.
Around the 1940s or ’50s, the bell was put inside a protective cage. Why? Because before then, legend has it, troublemaking interns would throw coins onto the podium in an attempt to hit the bell and make it ring, much to the annoyance of everyone else.
The first guest to ring the bell was Leonard Ross, a 10-year old boy who had won a television quiz show answering questions about the stock market in 1956.
Leonard Ross’s achievement notwithstanding, the practice of guests ringing the bell didn’t pick up steam until the 1990s. Today, the honor is most often granted to officials at companies undertaking an initial public offering at the Exchange, or a spinning off a business unit, but celebrities associated with NYSE-listed companies, officials at charities, and world leaders, including Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela, have rung the bell, too.
To “ring” the bell, one must hold down a button on the podium for a specified amount of time. In the mornings, traditionally, the button is held for 10 seconds (for the ringing to last 10 seconds) and at the close of trading, at 4 p.m. ET, the button is held for 15 seconds.
If the person ringing the bell fails to hold the button for the correct amount of time, boos tend to emanate from the trading floor, no matter how famous the bell ringer.
The NYSE holds a trademark on the sound of the bell. An expert who analyzed the bell’s sound for the trademark registration gave the following description: “The mark consists of the sound of a brass bell tuned to the pitch D, but with an overtone of D-sharp, struck nine times at a brisk tempo, with the final tone allowed to ring until the sound decays naturally. The rhythmic pattern is eight 16th notes and a quarter note; the total duration, from the striking of the first tone to the end of the decay on the final one, is just over 3 seconds.”
The bell installed during the bell podium’s renovations is brand new, but still pays homage to the NYSE’s history: the new bell is a replica of the last bell installed at the podium in 1903.
In addition to the bell at the NYSE podium, there are three permanently installed bells in the NYSE building, plus two portable bells. In a newer NYSE tradition, the portable bells are rung to mark the very first trade of a company’s stock following its IPO.