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The dumbbell gets its name from bell ringing. In the 8th century, church towers started having hanging bells installed. These bells were very large and heavy and needed several people to actually move them in order to make them ring. This required much practice so a device with weights on ropes was used to help novice bell ringers to develop strength and skill without driving everyone crazy with the noise.

Around the 17th century, there was a desire to develop physical fitness and bell ringing, or campanology, was a good pastime to do this. However, it isn't the most convenient method of exercise, because constant bell ringing would be more than a little intrusive to the local inhabitants. Thus, a device was created that had a wooden spindle to which lead weights were attached on the end of perpendicular arms. A rope was wound round the spindle. When the rope was pulled, the spindle would rotate until the rope was unwound and momentum would wind it back the other way, ready to be pulled again. The heavy weights made pulling the rope difficult and thus the user had to work hard to use the machine.

This mechanism is the similar to the mechanism for ringing a bell. The device was thus called a dumbbell because it was silent. Eventually, the term dumbbell was applied to the object that we know today, which consists of a metal bar with interchangeable weights at either end, used to exercise the upper body through lifting.

The first recorded use of the term is by Joseph Addison in 1711.