Italian church bells go high-tech | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 03.08.2010
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Italian church bells go high-tech

For centuries, one of the most characteristic sounds in every Italian piazza has been the joyful ringing of the church bells. Today’s parish priests can now ring their bells at the touch of a button.

Duomo di Chiari

The Duomo di Chiari was built in the 15th and 16th centuries

At the turn of the century, automated mechanical bell-ringers replaced humans to strike massive bells across many churchs in Italy.

Now, over a hundred years later, an Italian company is putting a new technological twist on that upgrade by allowing church bells, and recordings of bells to be activated remotely via smartphone.

RC TouchBell is a wireless bell-activating system, developed by Rubagotti Carlo, a company in the north Italian region of Lombardy.

Giacomo and Luca Rubagotti are bell restorers who got together with their childhood friend, Giorgio Campiotti, an IT expert, to create a system to cater to the needs of modern clergy.

"Today there are fewer and fewer priests in Italy," said Campiotti in an interview with Deutsche Welle, "and they often have to look after two or three churches. So a remote system can help a priest who has to be in two or three places at the same time."

The company pioneered the RC TouchBell in 2008, installing easy-to-use touch screens in many local churches. The system is electronically connected to the hammers which hit the bells to make them ring. It is able to store hundreds of chime combinations in its memory, which can be selected and activated at the touch of a button, or programmed to ring at the same time every day.

In recent months, the company has expanded that technology so that priests or other church officials can activate that same system remotely simply by using an application on their iPhone, even if they're many kilometers away from the church.

iPhone screenshot

A new iPhone app allows priests to activate the church bells from anywhere

RC TouchBell looking to expand in Italy, abroad

Since its launch, the touch screen system has been a major local success.

"At the moment, we have about 50 clients in northern Italy," Campiotti added. "and we're looking for an international distributor of our product."

His associate, Giacomo Rubagotti, has the bell tradition in his genes. The company he now runs with his brother, Luca, was founded by their father, Carlo Rubagotti, who was one of the first bell restorers to introduce motorized bells to Italian churches.

Rubagotti noted that, in spite of their old-fashioned image, the Italian clergy are really quite interested in modern technology.

"Priests are very attracted to new technology and digital systems”, he said while laughing. "One priest friend of mine has three cellular phones: one iPhone, one Blackberry and one Nokia system. He loves high-tech!"

In fact, now the company has developed the mobile phone bell technology, they are already receiving requests to modernize the system further.

"One priest on Lake Como asked me if we could set up a remote control system that could be operated from the main diocese management office," Rubagotti said. "All the church bells in the entire Como province could then be rung from there."

The system has other benefits too, thanks to high quality recordings of real bells made directly in church bell-towers, and speakers with top-of-the range sound diffusion technology. Modern churches built without bell towers can now enjoy the realistic sound of chimes, using the RC TouchBell system to activate virtual instead of real bells.

Chiari's bells

Chiari is the only church in Italy besides St. Peter's in Rome to have 11 bells instead of the usual eight

Locals are happy with the system

In the neighboring small town of Nave, the parish priest, Don Giuseppe, is very enthusiastic.

"We used to have a really bad old system of recorded bells, which was always breaking down and sounded awful," he said. "These bells sound much more realistic and they're really easy to use."

And locals are also more than satisfied with the solution.

"I like them!", said a local woman in Nave, "Whether they're real bells or not, I don't mind. I like them!"

Author: Dany Mitzman
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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