Big Ben – the tower, clock and bell. Description, photos, interesting facts

Big Ben

Big Ben is one of the most popular attractions of the capital of Great Britain and is one of the hallmarks of London. It is the name by which the world knows one of the three towers of the Palace of Westminster, the seat of Parliament of the United Kingdom, located on the banks of the River Thames.

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Video: Big Ben

Highlights

In a narrow sense, Big Ben refers to the 13-ton bell inside it, and the structure itself was officially renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the current British monarch’s enthronement.

Tourists coming to London consider it their duty to visit this landmark or at least to look at Big Ben from afar. But “visiting” does not mean being in the tower. At present its inner rooms for foreigners are closed, sometimes only local officials and representatives of the media get access there. The authorities have imposed strict measures for security reasons, and we will tell you about the reasons for such restrictions below.

But no matter how well-intentioned the restrictions may have been, they have had no impact on the popularity of Big Ben. Travelers from all over the world always find a free minute to come here and admire the architectural splendor of the tower. And of course, check the time: Big Ben is rightly considered the most accurate clock in the world!

Big Ben in the Fog Tour bus on its way to Big Ben

History of Big Ben

Construction of the Clock Tower at the Palace of Westminster, as it was called before it was renamed, began in 1837. The author of the project was the famous English architect Augustes Pugin. At that time Queen Victoria, who had ruled the British Empire for 63 years, had just ascended the throne. Then the Houses of Parliament, damaged in 1834 by a major fire, were reconstructed. The new tower structure located in the northern part of the Palace of Westminster has enriched its architectural complex and made its appearance even more recognizable.

In terms of its parameters, St. Stephen’s Tower (the landmark’s second name) is inferior to its “older sister” – the 98-meter high Victoria Tower, which is located in the southwestern part of the palace. Its height together with the spire is 96.3 meters. The first 61 meters of the tower is made of brick, while the outer cladding (siding) is made of Estonian limestone, which has been used in construction for 700 years. The remaining 35.3 meters is a cast-iron spire. The base of the tower is a concrete foundation, 4 meters deep.

View of Big Ben from Victoria Tower in 1920

Big Ben is also thinner than Victoria Tower. However, despite its comparatively smaller size, it won the sympathy of Londoners and visitors alike almost immediately. The architect built the building in the Gothic style with a certain charisma, which has always attracted attention for so many years. And the master also incorporated features from one of his earlier works, the Scarisbrick Hall Tower. Only he never got to see his own creation in his lifetime: Big Ben became Pugin’s last design work. The architect soon became seriously ill and passed away.

The reason for Big Ben’s popularity is not just the features of the tower as such. It is famous above all for its legendary clock, which stands 55 meters above the ground. The diameter of the steel-framed dials is enormous: 7 meters. The length of the hands, 2.7 meters for the hour and 4.2 meters for the minute, is also impressive. For a long time this chronometer was the biggest in the world. When the Allen-Bradley clock tower in Milwaukee (Wisconsin, USA) was commissioned in 1962, the London celebrity had to relinquish the palm.

Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster

Dials and clockwork

There are four faces on Big Ben, corresponding to the four corners of the earth, facing north, south, west and east. The big hour hands are made of iron-carbon alloy (cast-iron) and the minute hands are of lighter and thinner copper plate. The material of the dials is a mineraloid known as Birmingham opal. Only the opal glass in Big Ben’s dials is not solid, it is “broken” into 312 separate pieces. This fragmentation or mosaicism visually gives them the appearance of windows. But that’s not the main point: these pieces are easy to take out, allowing you to get inside the dials and perform inspections or some preventive measures if necessary.

The Greenwich Mean Time clocks of Big Ben are the most accurate clocks not only in Foggy Albion, but also in the world. How is their impeccable running ensured and maintained? To answer this question, let us look back to the origins, as they say. The designers of the chronometer were people who had very little to do with this business. Apart from Edmund Beckett Denison, the watchmaker (and even that amateur), George Airy, the lawyer, and the royal astronomer had a hand in the project. The clock movement was assembled by master watchmaker Edward John Dent in 1854.

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The clockwork of Big Ben The back side of the dial

The construction of the clock tower itself was still in progress, so it was up to master watchmaker Denison, a very imaginative man, to experiment. He risked giving up the aperiodic movement of the key that winds the clock. This was despite the fact that it was part of the design. Instead, he developed a double three-stage movement which allowed for optimum separation between the clockwork and the pendulum. The latter was installed inside a windproof and moisture-proof box, which is located below the clock room. It is 3.9 metres long and weighs 300 kilograms, two tonnes less than the movement. The pendulum swings every two seconds.

So, back to the question of the accuracy of Big Ben’s clock. From time to time it lags, and this is a well-known fact. But there’s no problem with that. And it’s all thanks to… the English penny. When the chronometer begins to “cheat”, the pendulum is simply loaded with an antique penny weighing one and a half grams. It is difficult to say right away what laws of physics are involved, but such “intervention” is guaranteed to speed up the clock by 2.5 seconds a day. The watchmaker, having achieved precision in this way, then removes the coin until the next time. The clock mechanism has never failed in 150 years, proving its reliability. It is periodically serviced and some parts are replaced. Every two days, the movement is thoroughly lubricated. But in general, its construction remains unchanged.

During the two world wars, Big Ben’s clock worked in a special mode. For example, in 1916-1918 the bell did not strike the time, and at night the illumination of the tower was not switched on. It has not been lit since September 1, 1939, when Hitler’s Germany treacherously attacked Poland, unleashing the bloodiest world war in the history of mankind. It is true that the clock worked properly and even the bell rang. In June 1941, during the bombing of London by Nazi aircraft, the main British chimes were damaged. But fortunately they were not serious, and the chronometer continued to run. Then it was stopped for a day, but only to repair the St. Stephen’s Tower itself.

The Bells of the Clock Tower

The largest bell in the Elizabeth Tower is the main one, Big Ben, which gave its name to the structure. It was cast on August 6, 1856 by John Warner & Sons in Stockton-on-Tees, northeast England. The 16-tonne machine was driven to the tower on a cart pulled by 16 horses. The event was so significant that an enthusiastic crowd accompanied the cart all the way. Their joy was premature: when the bell was tested, it cracked. We had to send it in for repair. On April 10, 1858 it was cast anew at the Whitechapel factory. The second bell turned out to be “thinner” and weighed 13.76 tons.

It took almost a whole day to raise the giant to the tower. It was heavy and overall: 2,2 meters high and 2,9 meters wide. And then it happened: on May 31, 1859 Londoners first heard the ringing of Big Ben. And although the weight of the striking hammer was also reduced, the bell cracked again after two months. They didn’t cast it anew and limited themselves to “cosmetic” repairs, which lasted 3 years. All this time the bell was silent.

The bells of Big Ben from above.

First they made a kerf in the form of a square, which would have prevented further spreading of the crack. Then the bell itself was turned around to keep the hammer from hitting the damage. The presence of the defect just creates a unique resonant sound, thanks to which the ringing of Big Ben is not confused with any other. Since then inhabitants and guests of the city on the Thames hear it every 60 minutes, and the first strike of the hammer coincides with the first second of the new hour.

The main bell is surrounded by smaller bells. Every fifteen minutes they play the tune “Westminster Quarters”, also known as “Cambridge Chimes” – after the church of St. Mary the Great (Cambridge). They beat out the rhythm of this saying: “In this hour the Lord protects me, and his power will not let anyone fall away. On December 31, 1923, the chime of the Clock Tower at the Palace of Westminster was first heard on BBC Radio, now the world’s largest broadcaster by audience reach. Since then, the sound of Big Ben has been heard twice during the day on BBC Radio: at 6:00 p.m. and at midnight. Interestingly, it is not broadcast from a pre-recorded tape, but live. This is made possible thanks to the microphone installed inside the tower.

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View of Big Ben from the Queen Walk promenade

Origin of the name

The Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster, St. Stephen’s Tower, and finally Elizabeth Tower are the official names of the landmark. But where did the name “Big Ben”, which has also become the most famous, come from? There are several versions on this subject. Let’s dwell on it in more detail.

According to one of them, the bell was named after Lord Benjamin Hall, a gentleman of large physique and a very sonorous voice. He supposedly spoke at a special session of Parliament on the very question of this very name. But he spoke for a very long time and bored his colleagues. One of the parliamentarians could not stand it and shouted from his seat: “Let’s call the bell Big Ben and get this hopeless business over with”. Big Ben” means “Big Ben”. The participants in the meeting appreciated the joke, and there was laughter in the hall, which could not mean anything but general agreement.

Another version attributes the name of the bell to the then famous heavyweight boxer Benjamin Count. Rumor has it that they even wanted to name the “voice” bell after Queen Victoria, a suggestion allegedly made by a member of the upper House of Lords. There was no official confirmation of this in the parliamentary records. And even if we assume that such an initiative did take place, for some reason it was not destined to come to fruition.

Big Ben in the sunset

Interesting facts

The British parliamentarians, who decided to build the tower in 1844, insisted that the clock installed on it should by all means be the most accurate in the world. Only then would they agree to provide the necessary funding. From this it can be deduced that if the planners could not convince them that this would be the case, the construction of Big Ben might not begin.

Big Ben as Prison, caricature

Big Ben was also used as… a prison. Parliamentarians too rowdy at meetings were imprisoned there. Its last prisoner was the representative of the feminist movement Emmeline Pankhurst, who fought for equal rights for women. There is a monument to her outside the Palace of Westminster.

One day in 1949, the clock of Big Ben suddenly lost four minutes, which was a real emergency. Everybody blamed the clock mechanism: it must be too old to stand the test of time. But it turned out that a flock of starlings decided to settle right on the minute hand.

The next time, in the winter of 1962, the watch was exposed to icing. The specialists concluded that it might be damaged by mechanical chunks of ice, so they decided not to take any chances. The caretakers were instructed to disconnect the pendulum from the clock mechanism so as not to have a major breakdown. With the onset of the thaw it was restarted.

However, Big Ben’s clock did break once. On 5 August 1976 it stopped and remained stopped for nine months. The reason was the fatigue of the metal of which the torsion suspension of the pendulum, which transmitted its weight, was made. This accident caused considerable damage to the movement. After the damage had been repaired, the watch was re-launched on 9 May 1977. It served as a lesson for the future: henceforth the maintenance of Big Ben is carried out regularly and with greater care. To this end the clock could be stopped for an hour or two. Moreover, such pauses are not recorded as stops. Minor breakages also occurred, but rarely.

Another weather factor affected the operation of the clock on May 27, 2005. The sun was burning unbearably in London, and for this reason the mechanism stopped working twice during the day. True, the direct link between the heat and the stopping of Big Ben has not been established conclusively, but then there was simply no other explanation. In the same year of 2005, the mechanism was stopped for 33 hours – routine maintenance was conducted. This duration was a record of sorts. It was the first time in August 2007 that maintenance work was carried out without stopping the movement. It lasted for 6 weeks, during which the watchmakers replaced the bearings and the main bell fixing system. The watch hand kept running with the help of specially connected electric motors.

On 30 January 1965 Britain and the whole world said goodbye to the most famous Prime Minister in the history of the country Sir Winston Churchill. On that day, the bells of Big Ben did not strike the time. The next time the clocks were silent was on April 30, 1997, the day before the elections to the House of Commons of the British Parliament. And finally, the last time the tower clock stopped was on April 17, 2013, when Baroness Margaret Thatcher was buried. She was the first female head of government of the United Kingdom. She was nicknamed the “Iron Lady” for her determination in carrying out unpopular reforms during her lifetime.

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Red telephone box with Big Ben as a backdrop

The gilded inscription on each face reads in Latin: “Domine Salvam fac Reginam nostram Victoriam Primam”. The phrase translates as “God save our Queen Victoria the First.” There is another inscription – all around the perimeter of the tower, to the right and left of the clock – and it too is in Latin: “Laus Deo” (“Glory to God” or, alternatively, “Praise the Lord”).

When the British Parliament – incidentally, one of the oldest in the world – meets in the evening in the Palace of Westminster, the lights are always switched on at the top of the tower. Not everyone knows why. Is it a tradition or a symbol of something? More likely, the former. Victoria invented it as a way of seeing with her own eyes whether parliamentarians are really at work or just imitating it. Electric lamps have been lighting the clocks since 1912. Before that the source of light was a gas horn, which was a tube with a regulated gas supply and a mechanism for increasing the flow of air to the burner.

Even though Big Ben’s clock ceded world leadership to the Allen-Bradley chronometer in the United States, it is still the largest four-sided clock with a chime, because the Americans either forgot or didn’t want to add a chime to their chimes.

Big Ben: Today

Many foreign tourists dream of seeing the inside of the Elizabeth Tower, but the authorities have decided not to offer tours. Permanent access to Big Ben is allowed only to a select circle of dignitaries. They go up a narrow 334-step spiral staircase. Since there is no elevator in the tower, such an ascent becomes akin to a feat.

Stairs to the top of Big Ben

Why is there this ban? As the reason is called the risk of terrorist threat: after all, the landmark is part of the architectural complex of the current parliament building – the highest representative and legislative body of the country. Meanwhile, from time to time excursions to Big Ben are held for British citizens. Only no one other than a member of the House of Lords or a member of the House of Commons should act as an organizer.

The rest of us can only be satisfied with the appearance of the famous structure, taking pictures against its backdrop. As you travel around London, you are sure to come across many scaled-down copies of Big Ben. The duplicates are something between a tower and a floor clock in the homes of the British. “Clones” began to be installed almost at all city crossroads.

Did you know that Big Ben is gradually tilting? Of course, it’s not as good as the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy, but it’s a fact. Since its construction, the state of the ground has changed and that has caused Big Ben’s “fall”. The role of a catalyst was also played by the laying of the subway line of the London Underground “Jubilee”. But builders have calmed down: they foresaw it and therefore nothing terrible happened.

Souvenirs in the form of Big Ben.

Today the Elizabeth Tower has shifted by about 220 mm, which in relation to its height gives a slope of 1/250 toward the north-west. This is also affected by the external environment, with fluctuations of a few millimeters in one direction and a few millimeters in the other, depending on weather conditions.

No matter what, Big Ben is and remains an important symbol for Britain – like the Kremlin in Moscow for Russia, the Eiffel Tower for Paris or the Statue of Liberty for the United States. On the night of December 31 to January 1 Londoners listen to the chimes of the New Year’s Eve to raise their glasses in time.

The image of the tower has long been a brand in its own right and is widely used in culture and art. Familiar outlines can be found in movies, TV shows, comic books, computer games, as well as on envelopes, postcards and various souvenir products.

How to get there

In close proximity to Big Ben is a subway station Westminster, which is served by trains of three different lines: Circle line (yellow), District line (green) and Jubilee line (gray). In addition, the area around Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster is served by a huge number of bus routes, including night buses (there is a letter “N” in front of the route number).

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Big Ben is not what you think.

If you hear “Big Ben,” you’re probably imagining the world’s most famous symbol of Great Britain. The picture below is exactly what you think Big Ben is.

This tower is called Big Ben.

This tower is usually referred to as Big Ben.

Some people call this the four-sided clock tower built at the north end of the Palace of Westminster. Others say it is the name of the clock itself. But Big Ben is actually the name of the largest bell inside the tower.

You could say that Big Ben is a three-in-one attraction. And all three are quite interesting and practically inseparable from each other. So in this article we will look in detail not only at the bell, but also at the clock tower. We will apply the name Big Ben not only to the bell.

Where is Big Ben?

The most famous symbol of Britain is located in central London, 1,300 meters east of Buckingham Palace. Nearby is the Westminster Bridge over the Thames.

Big Ben and Westminster Bridge

Big Ben and Westminster Bridge

Tower

Elizabeth Tower, as it has been officially known since 2012. The name was given to it to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Elizabeth II. Before that it was called “Clock Tower”. And during the reign of Queen Victoria it was called St. Stephen’s Tower.

Big Ben in England

It was built in 1859 in Gothic style. The architect was Augustes Welby Pugin.

Interesting fact – Big Ben Tower was the last project in Augustes’ life. He later lost his mind and died shortly thereafter.

The total height together with the spire is 96.3 meters. It is taller than the Statue of Liberty in the United States. To get to the level of the bell tower, you have to overcome a staircase with 334 steps.

The staircase inside the tower

Stairs inside the tower

Interesting fact – Although the tower has become the most famous tourist attraction in London, access to the tower is closed to tourists. But once in a while there is an exception for VIPs and journalists.

The tower is based on a square foundation with sides 15.2 meters long. The foundation is poured concrete 3 meters thick. The internal volume of the tower is 4650 m 3.

The tower has a slope to the north-west of 0.26 degrees. It may not seem much, but the deviation from the axis at the top is already 43.5 centimeters. Of course, it is far from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but it cannot be called perpendicular. Experts believe that the deviation will not affect the building for the next 4,000 years.

In addition to its inclination, the tower also fluctuates a few millimeters every year in an east-west direction. This is due to the thermal effects of expansion and contraction.

On May 31, 2009, the tower celebrated its 150th anniversary.

Big Ben, symbol of Britain.

Fireworks at Big Ben Tower

The clock on Big Ben Tower was the third largest four-sided striking clock on the planet. It went off the clock on May 31, 1859. At the time, it proved to be the largest and most accurate quadrilateral clock on Earth.

The clock in numbers

  • Diameter of the dial – 7 meters
  • Length of the minute hand: 4.2 metres
  • Length of hour hand – 2.7 meters

The circumference of the dials is gold plated. Each has a Latin inscription which translates as “God Save Our Queen Victoria I”. Plus, there are more Latin inscriptions on the sides of the clock that translate as “Glory to God.”

Big Ben Clock

The clock on Big Ben

Clock mechanism

The clock movement has a pendulum inside a windproof box. Its length is 4 meters, and weight is 300 kilograms. The stroke of the pendulum is 2 seconds.

It is worth to mention an interesting feature of the clock’s rate adjustment. The pendulum has a space for … coins. These are coins of one penny denomination. The coins are placed inside the pendulum, and each coin speeds up the clock by 0.4 seconds per day.

The total weight of the entire clock mechanism is 5 tons.

Big Ben clockwork

The Clockwork of Big Ben

When did the clock stop?

Despite the clock’s high accuracy and reliability, it has occasionally stopped. The most famous ones are these.

  • On the night of June 4, 1941, the clock stopped for exactly 12 hours (10:13 PM to 10:13 AM the next morning). This happened after a man, who was working on the dial, left the hammer too close to the mechanism.
  • On August 12, 1949, the watch was 4.5 minutes off. A flock of starlings perched on the minute hand was the culprit.
  • On August 5, 1976, the heaviest malfunction occurred. For the first time in 117 years, the watch stopped because of the natural fatigue of the mechanism. The restoration lasted nine months. During this period, the clock did not work for a total of 26 days. On May 9, 1977, it was back in operation. This was the longest period of suspension since the watch was installed.
  • On the eve of the New Year 1962 the clocks slowed down due to the ice on the hands. As a result, the New Year came 9 minutes late.
  • On May 27, 2005, the clock stopped because of the heat.
  • On August 11, 2007, the repair work began. For the first time since its installation, the bearings in the dials and the Grand Bell were replaced. It was assumed that after that the clock would not need repair for at least another 200 years. But in fact, only 10 years later the repair was needed again.
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It is noteworthy that during the work on the mechanical part, the clock was driven by a special electric motor.

Clock restoration at Big Ben Tower

Restoration of the clock Big Ben

It is also worth noting an unusual work of Big Ben on July 27, 2012. On the morning of this day the clock struck 30 times in 3 minutes to commemorate the opening of the 30th Olympic Games.

Big Ben Bell

There are 5 bells in total in the tower. The heaviest of them is called Big Ben or simply “The Big Bell”. This giant weighs 13.7 tons. It was cast in 1958 and installed on the tower in 1859. At that time it was the heaviest in all Britain.

Big Ben Bell

That’s exactly what it’s called Big Ben.

Big Ben lasted only 23 years. In 1881 it was replaced by the Big-Paul bell, weighing 17 tons. It is installed in St. Paul Cathedral.

Note that the bell was cast before the tower was completed. Therefore, it was temporarily placed in the Palace of Westminster.

During the tests the bell cracked and a new one had to be hastily cast. On April 10, 1858 it was ready. The height of the bell was 2.29 meters and its diameter was 2.74 meters.

An interesting fact – It took 16 horses and 18 hours to deliver the bell to Big Ben and to install it in the tower.

The second bell suffered another setback – it too cracked. It turned out that the hammer was much heavier than the calculated parameters. We had to repair it. The crack was repaired by removing a small square part of the body, and the bell was turned around. To this day it is actually cracked. Naturally the original sound of Big Ben has changed.

In addition to the giant Ben, there are four other bells. They ring every 15 minutes.

Why Big Ben?

Why such a name is not known for sure. There are two versions.

According to the first, the name Big Ben appeared in honor of Benjamin Hall. He supervised the installation of the bell. Rumor has it that he himself jokingly suggested that the bell be called Big Ben.

A second version claims that the name was given in honor of English super heavyweight boxing champion Benjamin Count.

It is said that the Big Bell was originally named Victoria (appropriately in honor of Queen Victoria). But no record of this has survived.

When was Big Ben silent?

  • For 2 years during World War I, the bells were silent.
  • On January 30, 1965, they were silent at the funeral of the legendary British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
  • On April 17, 2013, the bells were silent during the funeral of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

Big Ben Tower in England

Big Ben reconstruction.

On August 21, 2017, renovation work began on the tower. They will last four years. During the reconstruction there are plans to add an elevator and repaint all four dials. During the work, Big Ben will be silent, except for the New Year and Christmas holidays. The total cost of the restoration work is 61 million pounds sterling.

Reconstructing Big Ben

Until 2021 Big Ben will look like this. On the right is the monument to Winston Churchill

Big Ben in tourism

It is perhaps the most iconic landmark not only in London, but in the whole of Great Britain. In fact it is a symbol of the country.

Image of Big Ben appears wherever it is necessary to demonstrate that something belongs to British culture.

Big Ben (tower, clock and bell) became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

In the age of the booming virtual world, Big Ben has become an integral part of it. He has his own Twitter account. Every hour there are “BONG” entries. The number of these “BONGs” naturally depends on the time. Not only that, his account has more than 460,000 subscribers.

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