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What's the Song That Clock Chimes Play?

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Readers Meg, Wayne, and Rajiv all wrote in to ask about the tune that clock chimes typically play. What’s it called? Where did it come from? How’d it get so popular? Here’s the story.

In 1793, a new clock was installed at St Mary the Great, the University Church of the University of Cambridge. Rev. Dr. Joseph Jowett, the Regius Professor of Civil Law, was asked to compose a chime. With the help of Dr. John Randall, a professor of music, and an undergraduate student named William Crotch, he wrote a melody reportedly based on a movement from George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Messiah.

The chime was dubbed “Jowett’s Jig” by Cambridge students and later became known as “The Cambridge Chimes.” The melody was copied by the men who installed the new clock and bells at the Palace of Westminster in the mid-1800s. (The clock, bells, and sometimes even the clock tower are commonly collectively known as “Big Ben,” though the nickname originally referred to just the 13½-ton hour bell, named for engineer Benjamin Hall, who oversaw its installation). From then on, the tune has been known as “The Westminster Chimes” or “Westminster Quarters.”

Edmund Beckett Denison, who designed the movement mechanism for the Westminster clock, said of the chimes:

"The repetition of four ding dongs can give no musical pleasure. The case is different with the Cambridge and Westminster quarter chimes on four bells, and the chime at the hour is the most complete and pleasing of all. It is singular that these beautiful chimes had been heard by thousands of men scattered all over England for 70 years before anyone thought of copying them, but since they were introduced in the Great Westminster Clock, on a much larger scale and with a slight difference in the intervals, they have been copied very extensively, and are already almost as numerous as the old-fashioned ding dong quarters."

The tune's prominence at the famous clock tower led to it being copied for small and large clocks worldwide (plus doorbells and school bells), to the point where it might be the only tune people think of when clock chimes are mentioned. Daniel Harrison, a music theorist and Chairman of the Department of Music at Yale University, writes that the tune's popularity also “certainly owes much to the attractive melodic sequence, but perhaps more to sentimental associations of British imperial pomp and circumstance, reinforced by the use of [the Quarters] by the BBC World Service for many years to preface the top-of-the-hour world news report.”

Is there something that you've always wondered? Email your questions to askmatt@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
How Does Autopilot Work on an Airplane?
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How does autopilot work on an airplane?

Joe Shelton:

David Micklewhyte’s answer is a good one. There are essentially a few types of features that different autopilots have. Some autopilots only have some of these features, while the more powerful autopilots do it all.

  • Heading Hold: There’s a small indicator that the pilot can set on the desired heading and the airplane will fly that heading. This feature doesn’t take the need for wind correction to desired routing into account; that’s left to the pilot.
  • Heading and Navigation: In addition to holding a heading, this version will take an electronic navigation input (e.g. GPS or VOR) and will follow (fly) that navigation reference. It’s sort of like an automated car in that it follows the navigator’s input and the pilot monitors.
  • Altitude Hold: Again, in addition to the above, a desired altitude can be set and the aircraft will fly at that altitude. Some autopilots have the capability for the pilot to select a desired altitude and a climb or descent rate and the aircraft will automatically climb or descend to that altitude and then hold the altitude.
  • Instrument Approaches: Autopilots with this capability will fly preprogrammed instrument approaches to the point where the pilot either takes control and lands or has the autopilot execute a missed approach.

The autopilot is a powerful computer that takes input from either the pilot or a navigation device and essentially does what it is told to do. GPS navigators, for example, can have a full flight plan entered from departure to destination, and the autopilot will follow the navigator’s guidance.

These are the majority of the controls on the autopilot installed in my airplane:

HDG Knob = Heading knob (Used to set the desired heading)

AP = Autopilot (Pressing this turns the autopilot on)

FD = Flight Director (A form of navigational display that the pilot uses)

HDG = Heading (Tells the autopilot to fly the heading set by the Heading Knob)

NAV = Tells the autopilot to follow the input from the selected navigator

APR = Tells the autopilot to fly the chosen approach

ALT = Tells the autopilot to manage the altitude, controlled by the following:

VS = Vertical Speed (Tells the autopilot to climb or descend at the chosen rate)

Nose UP / Nose DN = Sets the climb/descent rate in feet per minute

FLC = Flight Level Change (An easy manual way to set the autopilot)

ALT Knob = Used to enter the desired altitude

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

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