Planet Money
3:27 pm
Tue December 24, 2013

The Great Handbell War

Originally published on Wed December 25, 2013 10:21 am

Jake Malta left his job as chief engineer at Schulmerich, the world's biggest handbell company, in 1973.

But Malta couldn't stop thinking about bells. He had a vision for a perfect bell — a bell he had never quite achieved at Schulmerich.

So he set up shop in his living room. "He had a folding table, two of them, stretched out with all of his drafting supplies and piano behind him," his daughter, Joann, says.

He traveled to Europe and studied the physics of bells. He made sketch after sketch. "He knew that he could make it better," his daughter says.

Malta made a bell that, he said, had a purer tone than the ones he had developed at Schulmerich. The bell had a slightly different shape; he removed the little brass nub at the top of the bell, where it attaches to the handle. (The nub is called a "tang." This will be relevant later in the story.)

With his new design, Malta started a handbell company called Malmark, starting a multidecade feud between what became the world's two biggest handbell companies.

Malmark and Schulmerich are down the street from each other in Bucks County, Pa. Some experts say they can tell the difference between the companies' bells, but they're divided over which bell sounds better.

Pretty early on, the fight over which sounded better ended up in court. Schulmerich ran an ad disparaging "tangless bells." In 1976, Malmark sued over the ad. The Bell Wars had begun.

The two bell makers settled that lawsuit, agreeing not to publicly compare bells. But then there was another lawsuit over a patent. There were claims and counterclaims.

Kermit Junkert in Schulmerich's sales department says these were terrifying times. Neither side was supposed to compare its bells to its competitor's. So the salespeople were instructed to use very specific phrases.

For example, Junkert was told he could say "Our handle is not hollow" — implying, but not explicitly stating, that the competition's handles are hollow.

"There were legal teams that would write, 'Here's what you can say; here's what you can't say,' " Junkert says.

Over in the engineering department, the Schulmerich bell shop was tasked at one point with proving that a bell with a tang was louder than one without.

The engineers built a robotic ringer that would hit the bell with exactly the same force every time. Gregory Schwartz, an engineer who worked on the robot, says the tang did make a bell louder — but just barely. "You're only looking at a percent or two, something like that," he told me.

The bell wars went on for more than 30 years. One case made it to the doorstep of the Supreme Court (which refused to hear the case). In another, Malmark won a $2 million settlement. Some bell ringers developed fierce affiliations to one company or the other.

Peace came slowly, with the passage of time. Jake Malta and his counterpart at Schulmerich passed away and a younger generation took over. Last year, the new heads of the companies found themselves at the same meeting in Cincinnati. And — this was big news in the handbell world — the two of them sat down and talked.

"The enemy is the 300 million people out there who don't ring handbells," Jonathan Goldstein, the new head of Schulmerich, told the new head of Malmark. "Let's go get those people and show them what a great instrument this is and get them ringing!"

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

There's one musical instrument that gets extra attention around Christmas: The handbell.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBELL MUSIC, "THE NUTCRACKER")

SIEGEL: Handbells really are all about learning to play nicely with others. Maybe you've seen hand bell choirs in churches or schools or perhaps you've played in one. For things not to sound like a total mess, each member of the choir has to ring the right bell at precisely the right time.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBELL MUSIC, "THE NUTCRACKER")

SIEGEL: Well, for years though the relationship between the two companies that make most of the world's handbells was anything but harmonic. David Kestenbaum, of our Planet Money Team, tells us about the multi-decade feud between the two companies and how they finally made peace.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: The story of the feud begins back before there were two companies when there was just one, Shulmerich in Sellersville, Pennsylvania. Schulmerich's chief engineer at the time was a man named Jake Malta. But there was a change in management. He didn't get along with the new bosses and in 1973 he left. The thing is he could not stop thinking about handbells. He had a vision for a perfect bell, a bell of supreme perfection that he had never quite achieved at Shulmerich.

His daughter, Joann Malta, says he set up shop in the family living room.

JOANN MALTA: He had a folding table - two of them - stretched out with all of his drafting supplies on there, and then piano behind him.

KESTENBAUM: He traveled to Europe, studied the physics of bells, made sketch after sketch.

MALTA: He knew that he could make it better. And, you know, we still believe that he achieved that.

(LAUGHTER)

KESTENBAUM: Malta's achievement: A bell that he said had a purer tone than the ones he had developed at Schulmerich. The bell had a slightly different shape - and this is key, so remember it - he removed the little brass nub at the top of the bell where it attaches to the handle, the part called the tang.

Malta took his design and started a new handbell company called Malmark, just down the street from his former employer. And before we get to the decades long war, I'm going to play you what they were fighting over. Here is the sound of a Malmark bell.

(SOUNDBITE OF A MALMARK BELL)

KESTENBAUM: And this is a Shulmerich bell, same note.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SHULMERICH BELL)

KESTENBAUM: Some experts say they can tell the difference, though they are divided over which bell sounds better.

Pretty early on the fight over which sounded better ended up in court. Shulmerich had run an ad disparaging, quote, "tangless bells." In 1976, Malmark sued and the Bell Wars had begun. The two bell makers settled that lawsuit, agreeing not to compare their bells to the other's bells. But then there was another lawsuit over a patent, claims and counterclaims.

Kermit Junkert, in Shulmerich's sales department, says these were terrifying times. Remember neither side was supposed to compare its bell to the other's bell. So Kermit and other sales people were instructed to use all these awkward phrases.

KERMIT JUNKERT: For example our handle is not hollow. Well, by saying it's not something you would refer or infer that someone else's handle was hollow.

KESTENBAUM: Like you were indirectly trash-talking the other one?

JUNKERT: Indirectly, of course. I mean literally there were legal teams that would write here's what you can say or here's what you can't say. And that was - that would come about from whoever won latest lawsuit.

KESTENBAUM: How long did that go on?

JUNKERT: Forever

KESTENBAUM: Over in the engineering department, workers also found themselves drafted into the conflict. The Schulmerich bell shop was transformed into an experimental laboratory, tasked at one point, with trying to substantiate the claim that a bell with a tang was louder than one without. As part of the testing equipment, the engineers built a robotic ringer that would hit the bell with exactly the same force every time.

Gregory Schwartz, an engineer who worked on this, said the tang did make a bell louder, but not much.

GREGORY SCHWARTZ: So we were only looking at a percent or two, maybe something like that.

KESTENBAUM: There's a couple percent louder/

SCHWARTZ: Maybe.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHWARTZ: Is the average Joe going to know the difference? I don't think so.

KESTENBAUM: It wasn't even like it sounded better, it was just slightly louder.

SCHWARTZ: Right, that's basically it. But that was the premise that our bells with tangs produce more sound to volume. And other side said: Baloney, that's not true. And we said yes it is true.

KESTENBAUM: One lawsuit even made it up to the door of the U.S. Supreme Court, which in the end decided not to hear it. In another lawsuit, Malmark was awarded $2 million, which was a lot less after legal fees.

Another group that sometimes joined the fray were the bell ringers themselves who, remember, were musicians, church goers, elementary school teachers.

Tim Shuback, at Malmark, recalls one episode at a handbell industry conference.

TIM SHUBACK: I had, unbeknownst to me, mistakenly said hello to a Schulmerich customer from our booth. And the customer continued to walk by. And over their shoulder - not even stopping to acknowledge me - said: We're Schulmerich ringers in a very kind of...

(LAUGHTER)

SHUBACK: ...condescending way.

KESTENBAUM: The bell wars, in all, they went on for over 30 years. Peace finally came just with the passage of time. The heads of the companies who had fought so hard, passed away. And the younger generation took over. Tim who you just heard came to run Malmark. And a new guy bought Shulmerich, a guy named Jonathan Goldstein. This was a notable development for a couple reasons: One, he's Jewish; and two, he knew nothing about bells.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: When I purchased the company, I knew less than nothing. I can't even read music.

KESTENBAUM: Last year, Jonathan, and Tim - the new heads of both companies - found themselves at the same meeting in Cincinnati. And - this was big news in the hand bell world - the two of them sat down and talked.

GOLDSTEIN: So I said, you know, hi.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDSTEIN: Wow. My understanding is these two companies went at it hammer and tongs for a lot of years. And I'm just not ready to do that. I said it seems to me that, you know, you're not my enemy and I'm not your enemy. The enemy is the 300 million people out there who don't ring handbells.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDSTEIN: Let's go get those people and show them what a great instrument this is and get them ringing.

JUNKERT: It was so welcome. It was just like this great weight coming off of our chests.

KESTENBAUM: This is Kermit again, in sales. As is often the case after a long war, the soldiers are eager for peace. Kermit just got a Christmas card from Malmark for the very first time. And he told me something it's hard to imagine either side saying during the long decades of battle: Shulmerich bells and Malmark bells, they both sound beautiful. You can even play them together.

JUNKERT: And the bells when they are mixed together that wonderful.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL MUSIC, "SLEIGH RIDE")

JUNKERT: Its a wonderful sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL MUSIC, "SLEIGH RIDE")

KESTENBAUM: This is the Sonos Handbell Ensemble, one of the few choirs. That mixes Shulmerich and Malmark bells.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL MUSIC, "SLEIGH RIDE")

SIEGEL: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.