Big Ben and beyond
And now for something slightly different.
Years ago on my first visit to London, I took in many of the standard tourist attractions—dutifully snapping photos, reading the histories in the guide books, and so on. But I quickly realized that there was a disconnection between the kinds of things I find interesting and the kinds of things most tourists find interesting. Take Big Ben, for example. You can’t go to London without seeing (and hearing) Big Ben. It’s just one of those things. (And it’s a rather prominent feature of the skyline, too, so it would be difficult to avoid seeing even if you wanted to.) So we saw Big Ben. But other than having heard about it in children’s songs and stories since I was young, I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be so excited about. I’ve seen clocks. I’ve heard bells. Here’s one that’s larger than average. So?
It was not until well after I returned that I discovered a whole list of facts about Big Ben I hadn’t previously known. Although individually these facts are not extraordinarily impressive, I think that collectively they are rather interesting. If my British readers, for whom all of this is probably old news, will forgive me, I’d like to present a sampling of interesting things about the world’s most famous clock tower:
- The part and the whole: For starters, contrary to common usage, Big Ben is actually the nickname of a single bell—not of the clock itself, the tower in which it is installed, or the building of which the tower is a part. The building is the Palace of Westminster, commonly known as the Houses of Parliament. The tower that houses the clock was previously known as the Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster, but was renamed the Elizabeth Tower in 2012, in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. The tower, in turn, houses the clock—officially known as the Great Clock of Westminster. It has four faces, one very large bell, and four smaller bells. The largest bell, which chimes on the hour—and which, by the way, is not visible from the outside—is the Great Bell of Westminster, or Big Ben for short. It was cast in 1856 and is one of Britain’s largest bells, at 9 feet (3m) in diameter.
- For whom the bell is named: According to most accounts, Big Ben was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, Commissioner of Works at the time of the bell’s construction. Sir Benjamin was a large man, and so the nickname seemed appropriate given the size of the bell. However, others say the clock was named after champion boxer Benjamin Caunt. In either case, it was a man named Benjamin who had the nickname “Big Ben” first.
- Cracks and replacements: The original specification for the clock had called for a bell weighing 14 tons. The foundry, however, made a much larger, 16-ton bell—which cracked during testing. So a different foundry was selected, and the original bell melted down as raw material for a second bell, which weighed 13.8 tons. This bell was thoroughly tested before being installed in the clock tower. After just one month in operation, though, the new bell also cracked—though not as severely as the first. The crack was filled, a lighter clapper installed, and the entire bell rotated so that the clapper struck an undamaged portion of the bell. This arrangement has survived ever since, but the crack affected the character of the bell’s tone as well as the pitch, which was originally an E.
- The Liberty Bell connection: Whitechapel Foundry, where the (second and final) bell was cast, had also cast the Liberty Bell—which cracked on its first public ringing—almost exactly a century earlier, in 1752. By yet another coincidence, the Great Clock of Westminster famously broke down in 1976, the U.S. bicentennial year, requiring major reconstruction.
- Accuracy: The Great Clock of Westminster is one of the largest mechanical clocks in the world—and, to this day, one of the most accurate. Its original specification stipulated that the first ring of the clock each hour should be within one second of the correct time. The leading clock designers of the day considered that an unreachable goal, because the hands and other exposed parts were subject to the action of wind, moisture, temperature changes, birds, and other variables that could easily throw off its accuracy by more than a second. However, after winning a design competition, Edmund Beckett Denison was hired to design the clock, which did in fact obtain the specified accuracy. When minor adjustments need to be made to regulate the clock’s speed, pennies are placed on the clock’s pendulum to alter its weight slightly.
Those who investigate the history of the clock’s design and operation will find many other fascinating facts, including any number of controversies and scandals that emerged during the years of its construction…and the presence of a prison cell in the clock tower, intended to hold Ministers of Parliament who have breached parliamentary privilege (though it has not been used for this purpose in over a century). All that to say, Big Ben is very much more than an oversized clock bell, but its most interesting features, like the bell itself, are nearly always hidden from public view.
Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on October 27, 2004.