Historical Highlights

Legislative signal bells in the House of Representatives

July 24, 1888
Legislative signal bells in the House of Representatives Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives The clock with accompanying lighted stars served as one the early notification systems of House Floor proceedings for Members and staff.
On this date, the House of Representatives approved a resolution to add legislative signal bells to the House wing of the Capitol to keep Members informed of House Floor proceedings. New Jersey Representative Herman Lehlbach from the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds resolved that the House employ an electrical engineer at the cost of $1,000 to map out the specifications. In January 1889, Chairman Samuel Dibble of South Carolina reported back from the committee on the findings of engineer, John E. Powell. Dibble reported on H.Res. 251, “To provide for electric lights and call-bells in the House wing, rotunda, and tholus of the Capitol at Washington.” The resolution appropriated $125,000 to the complete project. Over the next three years, the system was installed in all committee and office rooms. When the first House office building opened in 1908, it included the signal bells in each room. The complicated system of bells (and later, lights) was developed to remind Members and their staff of the status of floor proceedings in the House Chamber. While the legislative bells have been almost exclusively used for parliamentary purposes, in one instance, a Member used the signal bells to retrieve a missing hat. In 1946, Michigan Representative Roy Woodruff’s new hat vanished from the Speaker’s Lobby. Upon making the discovery, Woodruff rushed back into the House Chamber and made a motion that a quorum was not present and demanded a roll call of the Members in hopes of retrieving the hat. The bells recalled Members to the floor and to Woodruff’s delight the hat mysteriously reappeared in the lobby. In addition to modern technologies available to Members of Congress, the legislative bell system remains to this day a favored method to inform Members and staff about proceedings in the House of Representatives.

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