The Curiously Quick History of the Dumbbell

While it may not be a topic of immediate interest to most, it is such a one of great value to me. I see my Dumbbells, my Barbells and Kettlebells every day. It actually wasn’t until fairly recently that I began to wonder about the origin of one of my favourite strength training implements. The word always comforted me, having an unmistakable Anglo-Saxon gleam. Dumbbell. Dumb Bell. I hadn’t a clue how Anglo-Saxon it really is.

The Bell takes us back to England. Why not? In fact, the Dumbbell’s gonna take you straight to Church. In more civilised times, the English had strict social organisations. Chiefly in the form of the village. In the Medieval Era, the Church was the centre of the village. In such times, when the tightly organised English village still rotated around church life, everyone had a specific role in the village.

Enter the Bell Ringer. Consider the staggering girth of a medieval bell. Made of solid metal, suspended by heavy ropes. The strength it would have taken to ring a bell would have been considerable. And it is a very specialised kind of strength. Men are not born bell ringers. You would have had to train to gain such strength and balance.

Now. Being as it was a serious affair, the Church Bell couldn’t just ring as it pleased. The Church rang the bell to keep time, call prayer and sound alarm. The bell was an important organisational tool. You couldn’t just… practise. That, and the racket would inevitably cause the neighbours to talk and resentments to build. The Medieval Era, after all, is famed for her spectacular lynchings.

So it was devised, at some point, a system of pulleys with small bells of considerable weight attached. By this system one could practise increasing their strength in silence. The operating keyword, in Old English, was dumb. Dumb Bell – the quiet bell. It was in Stuart England that this term, and the accompaniment, became popular. It can be argued whether the standalone dumbbell came much longer after this point. What we do know, is that the resultant effects of doing “bell work” caused notice amongst the citizens.

History informs us that the familiar Dumbbell, that of the bell attached to a small bar, appeared in the early 17th century. By this time, the Dumbbell had already become a token of masculine enterprise. We have it on record that late, great Benjamin Franklin having written of doing Dumbbell exercises to keep fit.

Perhaps we owe it in part to Mr. Franklin that by the late 1800s, the Dumbbell, and his famous son the Barbell, had more or less incorporated into popular culture. After all, who doesn’t have some vague image of the circus strongman, with his unfortunate leotard, hoisting a haemorrhoid flirting dumbbell over his head? Indeed, I was personally intrigued to learn that between the reign of the great Eugen Sandow and the rise of the incredible Arthur Saxon, the plate-loaded Barbell was a recent invention, prior to which the familiar shot-loaded bells were used.

Ah, the things we take for granted.

4 thoughts on “The Curiously Quick History of the Dumbbell

  1. I love lifting. Before becoming a born again Christian, I used lifting as my outlet. I lost strength because I did an intense internship but will return to powerlifting next year. I never would have thought that these weights had such a significant history. I appreciate your article. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey thanks. I also love lifting. The great thing about history is how every single object and word we take for granted has a deeper, hidden meaning.

      Kind of theological if you think about it. Layers of exponentially complex meaning terminating in a deceptively simple genesis.

      On a more mundane level, I’m thinking about doing a follow up on the Barbell.


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