Purdue Bass Drum (1921)The Purdue Bass Drum making its first appearance in 1921 at the steps of the Indiana state capital.

In 1921, Purdue Marching Band Director, Spotts Emrick, commissioned the Leedy Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis, Indiana, to produce a massive bass drum at a cost of around $800. Emrick wanted to make Purdue University's 100-piece marching band world famous and thought having a drum bigger than any other in the world would do just that. Prior to this commission, other marching bands had been trying to make large drums as well, but most could only achieve a diameter of about four feet.

The main constraints with building a large bass drum: finding cattle skins large enough to use for drum heads, and carrying the drum both during and in between performances. After months of searching, Leedy's suppliers solved the first problem by finding steers from Argentina, weighing between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds each. The large drumheads, however, put a lot of strain on the drum shell, forcing Leedy to design special reinforcement rods for the wood shell. When it came to tackling the cartage issue, Emrick and Leedy decided to use a wheeled carriage. After contacting Jesse Lemon of the New York Central Railroad, Emrick was able to find a baggage car with a door large enough to accommodate the 'monster' drum. Problems solved.

At the time of its coronation, Purdue's Big Bass Drum easily doubled the size of any drum in the world and went on to maintain the "World's Largest Drum" status for decades. The development of mylar in the 1950s, making synthetic rather than steer hide heads possible, made the creation of big drums much easier. But, since these types of drums are so expensive to build, challenging to store, and hard to transport, the number of 'big drums' remains small.

Purdue's maple-shelled drum of today is the same original drum built by Leedy back in 1921. It was refurbished in 1937 when the natural wood finish was replaced by an old gold diamond pattern, adding several inches to the drum's size. After years of damage and neglect, Al Wright, who took on the director of bands position at Purdue in 1954, had the Big Bass Drum repaired and once again made a centerpiece of the university's marching band.

While the drum may have been the world's largest in overall size at the time it was constructed, other drums have claimed the title of "world's largest," although no official comparative measurement has ever been made.

Over the years the Big Bass Drum has led a long and colorful life at Purdue. Besides a number of extended "drum naps," numerous celebrities have signed the drumheads, including President Harry Truman and 'first man on the moon', Neil Armstrong, himself a former Purdue band member himself.

The Big Bass Drum is handled by a crew of six individuals; four "pushers" working to quickly move and navigate the drum through the band and across the football field, and two "beaters" who work as a team to hit the drum. Every fall, during a one week camp, potential crew members are put through a series of physical and public relations tests to determine if they suit the characteristics needed to be on the drum crew. Physical tests include: 2 minutes of push-ups, 2 minutes of sit-ups, a 1.5-mile road course, a 100-meter dash, and a 400-meter run. Each test has a perfect score that members are aiming for. A series of questions are asked to the crew to see how they would respond in a variety of situations, ranging from talking with celebrities, rowdy fans, and senior citizens, to the history and other important facts about the drum. The week of camp ends with the crew scaling the seats of Ross Ade stadium for one final run in the blistering sun of an Indiana August.

In addition to the celebrity drumhead signing tradition — old autographed heads are kept in the Band department — the inside of the drum is filled with the names and signatures of previous drum crew members.

Purdue Bass Drum 1940s

World's Largest Bass Drum?

A number of drums lay claim to the title of the "World's Largest Drum." Remo Belli, founder of Remo, Inc., made a large bass drum in the 1960's in an effort to 'dramatize' the advantages of mylar as a drum head material. In 2001, Guinness World Record said that the "biggest drum" was the Ireland Millennium Drum, designed by Brian Fleming and Paraic Breathnac, constructed by Bill Wright and Seamus Purcell, with a diameter of 15 ft. 6 in. and a depth of 6 ft. 3 in. Made from birch plywood and sailcloth, it was first played at the St. Patrick's Festival in Dublin, Ireland's Millemmium Festivals. However, as of July 6, 2011, Guinness World Records has bestowed the title of "largest drum" to an instrument created by Yeong Dong-Gun local government and Seuk Je Lee (all South Korea) in Simcheon-Meon, South Korea. Their drum measures 5.54 m (18 ft 2 in) in diameter, 5.96 m (19 ft 6 in) tall, and weighs 7 tonnes (15,432 lb 5.76 oz).

Despite all of the competition, purists consider the Purdue drum to be "the largest bass drum in the world made for the use with calfskin heads an still in use by a marching band." Using that definition, the competition for the "World's Largest Drum" declaration is now between two drums — the Purdue Big Bass Drum and Big Bertha.

The Purdue drum made its first football game appearance in 1921, Purdue vs. Chicago, at the University of Chicago. The Chicago marching band members immediately contacted Conn Instruments, commissioning them to build an even larger drum. The resulting instrument, nicknamed "Big Bertha," was completed the following year, and was first used at the football game between Chicago and Princeton University on October 28th, 1922. When the University of Chicago ended its varsity football program in 1929, the drum was stored under the school's bleachers! Bertha remained in seclusion for many years, later becoming radioactively contaminated as a result of research for the Manhattan Project which was conducted at the Chicago stadium during the 1940s. Big Bertha finally saw the light of day in 1955 when Colonel D. Harold Byrd, a former University of Texas Longhorn Band member, purchased the drum from the University of Chicago for $1.00, had it restored, decontaminated, and brought to the University of Texas.

BigBertha 10-28-1922

In 1961, chapters of the national honorary band fraternity, Kappa Kappa Psi, from Purdue University and the University of Texas, pledged to bring their drums to the national convention in Wichita, Kansas. Only the Purdue Boilermakers showed up with the Purdue Big Bass Drum, thus claiming the title of "World's Largest Drum" for themselves.

Big Bertha, nicknamed the "Sweetheart of the Longhorn Band", measures 8 feet (2.44 m) in diameter, 44 inches (1.12 m) in depth, weighs more than 500 pounds (230 kg), and stands 10 feet (3 m) tall when on its four-wheeled cart. The Purdue Big Bass Drum also stands around 10 feet (3m) tall while on its four-wheeled cart, but it's exact dimensions are a "closely held secret," says 2010 Purdue crew member, Brian Foss. Whether Big Bertha is actually larger than the Purdue Drum ... that continues to be debated.