Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

“No Other Word than Magic”

Mantle Clock/tiles/non-collection/4/4_28_clock_with_lights_2008_218_000PQ1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives 
About this object
Some clocks, like this one, were likely fitted with legislative lights by the House’s electrical and carpentry shops.
Clocks all over the House of Representatives—the plain ones, the fancy ones, even the ones that look like they belong in a high school classroom—have a little set of lights connected to them. Sometimes one is lit, sometimes all seven flash, and sometimes they are accompanied by loud buzzes (or rings, as they are officially termed) blasting a seemingly incomprehensible sequence. How did such a sound-and-light show end up in Congress?

It all began in 1888, when the advent of electricity sent a thrill through the Capitol and made possible the bell system. The House decided to add legislative signal bells to its side of the Capitol to summon Members for votes, instead of bellowing Pages running through the halls like miniature town criers. The bells first chimed in 1890, when House officers were able to alert Members in 64 different rooms of the House’s activities. One dazzled reporter wrote that “no other word than magic” could describe the complicated electrical systems in the Capitol. Another marveled that the bells even reached to the roof of the House: “When the speaker’s gavel touched the pounding board the sergeant-at-arms had pressed an electric button, a bell had tinkled away up there on the roof, and the signal was given for the unfurling of the flag.”

Getting Ready for the Opening of the 76th Congress/tiles/non-collection/4/4_28_chamber_clock_PA2012_04_0059.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Photography Collection 
About this object
One clock that never got lights or buzzers was the historic 1857 Chamber clock.
The Doorkeeper of the House or Sergeant at Arms, sitting in the Chamber, controlled the elaborate console. The walnut box had buttons that caused gongs (some as large as a foot in diameter) to ring throughout the House side of the Capitol and the House Office Building, as well as those that went to particular rooms. One was used only at one minute before noon, audible only in the Speaker’s office, where, “in a corner of the room rings a sharp warning. It is noon the hour when the house assembles.”

Signals became increasingly complicated over the years. By 1912, instead of simply a call of the House, it was reported that “the five calls are made by one ring, two rings, etc., up to five, and indicate, respectively, ‘tellers,’ ‘yeas and nays,’ ‘call of the house,’ ‘adjournment’ and ‘recess.’” When the House built a new office building in 1933, it introduced a new wrinkle, along with a buzzing noise that replaced the melodious bell. Brass plates engraved with the legend “legislative buzzer” were installed in each Members’ two-room office, with a dial in the center that could be turned to “P”, the Member’s private office; “G”, the general office; or “PG” to sound in both rooms. Beginning in 1963, an entirely new system (with lights!) was installed, and the whole affair tied into the House’s clocks, also driven from a single master system. Even after the advent of pagers in the late 20th century and smartphones in the 21st century, the sounds and lights of the legislative clocks continue, with a dozen different sequences, covering House actions from quorum calls to recesses.

Sources: Bay City Times (Bay City, MI), October 5, 1890; Colorado Springs Gazette, September 15, 1912; Report of the Commission to Direct and Supervise the Construction of the House Office Building, H. Rep. 2291, 61st Cong., 3d sess. (1912); Hearings Before the House Subcommittee on Legislative Appropriations of the Committee on Appropriations, Legislative Branch Appropriations for 1963, 87th Cong., 2nd sess. (1962).