Big Ben is
the nickname for the great bell of the clock at the north end of the Palace of
Westminster in London, and often extended to refer to the clock and the clock
tower, officially named Elizabeth Tower, as well. Elizabeth Tower holds the
largest four-faced chiming clock in the world and is the third-tallest
free-standing clock tower. It celebrated its 150th anniversary on 31 May 2009,
during which celebratory events took place. The tower was completed in 1858 and
has become one of the most prominent symbols of both London and England, often
in the establishing shot of films set in the city.
A modern picture of 'Big Ben'
The Palace of Westminster, Elizabeth Tower and Westminster Bridge
The Palace of Westminster, Elizabeth Tower and
Elizabeth Tower (previously called the Clock Tower) named in tribute to Queen
Elizabeth II in her Diamond Jubilee year – was raised as a part of Charles
Barry's design for a new palace, after the old Palace of Westminster was
largely destroyed by fire on the night of 16 October 1834.The new
Parliament was built in a Neo-gothic style. Although Barry was the chief
architect of the Palace, he turned to Augustus Pugin for the design of the
clock tower, which resembles earlier Pugin designs, including one for
Scarisbrick Hall. The design for the Elizabeth Tower was Pugin's last design
before his final descent into madness and death, and Pugin himself wrote, at
the time of Barry's last visit to him to collect the drawings: "I never
worked so hard in my life for Mr Barry for tomorrow I render all the designs for
finishing his bell tower & it is beautiful." The tower is designed
in Pugin's celebrated Gothic Revival style, and is 315 feet (96.0 m) high
(roughly 16 storeys).
200 feet (61.0 m) of Elizabeth Tower's structure consists of brickwork with
sand coloured Anston limestone cladding. The remainder of the tower's height is
a framed spire of cast iron. The tower is founded on a 50 feet (15.2 m) square
raft, made of 10 feet (3.0 m) thick concrete, at a depth of 13 feet (4.0 m)
below ground level. The four clock dials are 180 feet (54.9 m) above ground.
The interior volume of the tower is 164,200 cubic feet (4,650 cubic metres).
being one of the world's most famous tourist attractions, the interior of the
tower is not open to overseas visitors, though United Kingdom residents are
able to arrange tours (well in advance) through their Member of Parliament.However, the tower has no lift, so those escorted must climb the 334 limestone
stairs to the top.
changes in ground conditions since construction, the tower leans slightly to
the north-west, by roughly 230 millimetres (9.1 in) over 55 m height, giving an
inclination of approximately 1/240. This includes a planned maximum of 22 mm
increased tilt due to tunnelling for the Jubilee Line extension)Due to
thermal effects it oscillates annually by a few millimetres east and west.
during Queen Victoria's reign called it St Stephen's Tower. As MPs originally
sat at St Stephen's Hall, these journalists referred to anything related to the
House of Commons as news from "St Stephens".
On 2 June
2012, The Daily Telegraph reported that 331 Members of Parliament, including
senior members of all three main parties, supported a proposal to change the
name from Clock Tower to "Elizabeth Tower" in tribute to the Queen in
her Diamond Jubilee year. This is thought to be appropriate because the large
west tower now known as Victoria Tower was renamed in tribute to Queen Victoria
on her Diamond Jubilee.On 26 June, the House of Commons confirmed that the
name change could go ahead. Prime Minister Cameron announced the change of
name on 12 September 2012, at the start of Prime minister's questions. The
change was marked by a naming ceremony in which the Speaker of the House of
Commons, John Bercow unveiled a name plaque attached to the tower on Speaker's
Big Ben is in the Elizabeth Tower.
dial of the Great Clock of Westminster. The hour hand is 9 feet (2.7 m) long
and the minute hand is 14 feet (4.3 m) long
and dials were designed by Augustus Pugin. The clock dials are set in an iron frame
23 feet (7.0 m) in diameter, supporting 312 pieces of opal glass, rather like a
stained-glass window. Some of the glass pieces may be removed for inspection of
the hands. The surround of the dials is gilded. At the base of each clock dial
in gilt letters is the Latin inscription:DOMINE
SALVAM FAC REGINAM NOSTRAM VICTORIAM PRIMAM ”
O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First.
The dial of the Great Clock of Westminster. The hour hand is 9 feet (2.7 m) long and the minute hand is 14 feet (4.3 m) long
Elizabeth Tower at dusk, with The London Eye in the background
Elizabeth Tower at dusk, with The London Eye
in the background
movement is famous for its reliability. The designers were the lawyer and
amateur horologist Edmund Beckett Denison, and George Airy, the Astronomer
Royal. Construction was entrusted to clockmaker Edward John Dent; after his
death in 1853 his stepson Frederick Dent completed the work, in 1854. As
the Tower was not complete until 1859, Denison had time to experiment: Instead
of using the deadbeat escapement and remontoire as originally designed, Denison
invented the double three-legged gravity escapement. This escapement provides
the best separation between pendulum and clock mechanism. The pendulum is
installed within an enclosed windproof box sunk beneath the clockroom. It is 13
feet (4.0 m) long, weighs 660 pounds (300 kg) and beats every 2 seconds. The
clockwork mechanism in a room below weighs 5 tons. On top of the pendulum is a
small stack of old penny coins; these are to adjust the time of the clock.
Adding a coin has the effect of minutely lifting the position of the pendulum's
centre of mass, reducing the effective length of the pendulum rod and hence
increasing the rate at which the pendulum swings. Adding or removing a penny
will change the clock's speed by 0.4 seconds per day.
On 10 May
1941, a German bombing raid damaged two of the clock's dials and sections of
the tower's stepped roof and destroyed the House of Commons chamber. Architect
Sir Giles Gilbert Scott designed a new five-floor block. Two floors are
occupied by the current chamber, which was used for the first time on 26
October 1950. Despite the heavy bombing the clock ran accurately and chimed
throughout the Blitz.
Tower tilts as a result of the excavation of tunnels near Westminster. The
tower has tilted an additional 0.9 mm each year since 2003,and the tilt
can now be seen by the naked eye.
breakdowns, and other outages
clock face being cleaned on 11 August 2007
two years during World War I, the bells were silenced and the clock face
darkened at night to prevent attack by German Zeppelins.
1939: although the bells continued to ring, the clock faces were darkened at
night through World War II to prevent guiding Blitz pilots.
The south clock face being cleaned on 11 August 2007
Eve 1962: The clock slowed due to heavy snow and ice on the long hands, causing
the pendulum to detach from the clockwork, as it is designed to do in such
circumstances, to avoid serious damage elsewhere in the mechanism – the
pendulum continuing to swing freely. Thus it chimed in the new year 10 minutes
1976: First and only major breakdown. The air brake speed regulator of the
chiming mechanism broke after more than 100 years of torsional fatigue, causing
the fully wound 4-ton weight to spin the winding drum out of the movement,
causing a large amount of damage. The Great Clock was shut down for a total of
26 days over nine months – it was reactivated on 9 May 1977; this was its
longest break in operation since it was built. During this time BBC Radio 4 had
to make do with the pips. Although there were minor stoppages from 1977 to
2002 when the maintenance of the clock was carried out by the old firm of
clockmakers Thwaites & Reed, these were often repaired within the permitted
two hour downtime and not recorded as stoppages. Prior to 1970 the maintenance
was carried out by the original firm of Dents and since 2002 by Parliamentary
2005: the clock stopped at 10:07 pm local time, possibly due to hot weather;
temperatures in London had reached an unseasonable 31.8 °C (90 °F). It
restarted, but stopped again at 10:20 pm local time and remained still for
about 90 minutes before restarting.
2005: the mechanism was stopped for about 33 hours so the clock and its chimes
could be worked on. It was the lengthiest maintenance shutdown in 22 years.
7:00 am 5
June 2006: The clock tower's "Quarter Bells" were taken out of
commission for four weeks as a bearing holding one of the quarter bells was
damaged from years of wear and needed to be removed for repairs. During this
period, BBC Radio 4 broadcast recordings of British bird song followed by the
pips in place of the usual chimes.
2007: Start of 6-week stoppage for maintenance. Bearings in the clock's going
train and the "great bell" striker were replaced, for the first time
since installation. During the maintenance works, the clock was not driven
by the original mechanism, but by an electric motor. Once again, BBC Radio
4 had to make do with the pips during this time.
The second 'Big Ben' (centre) and the Quarter Bells from The Illustrated News of the World 4 December 1858
The second 'Big Ben' (centre) and the Quarter
Bells from The Illustrated News of the World 4 December 1858
bell, officially known as the Great Bell, is the largest bell in the tower and
part of the Great Clock of Westminster. The bell is better known by the
nickname Big Ben.
original bell was a 16 ton (16.3-tonne) hour bell, cast on 6 August 1856 in
Stockton-on-Tees by John Warner & Sons. The bell was named in honour of
Sir Benjamin Hall, and his name is inscribed on it. However, another theory
for the origin of the name is that the bell may have been named after a
contemporary heavyweight boxer Benjamin Caunt. It is thought that the bell
was originally to be called Victoria or Royal Victoria in honour of Queen
Victoria, but that an MP suggested the nickname during a Parliamentary debate;
the comment is not recorded in Hansard.
tower was not yet finished, the bell was mounted in New Palace Yard. Cast in
1856, the first bell was transported to the tower on a trolley drawn by sixteen
horses, with crowds cheering its progress. Unfortunately, it cracked beyond
repair while being tested and a replacement had to be made. The bell was recast
on 10 April 1858 at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry as a 13½ ton (13.76-tonne)
bell. This was pulled 200 ft (61.0 m) up to the Clock Tower’s belfry, a
feat that took 18 hours. It is 7 feet 6 inches (2.29 m) tall and 9 feet (2.74
m) diameter. This new bell first chimed in July 1859. In September it too
cracked under the hammer, a mere two months after it officially went into
service. According to the foundry's manager, George Mears, Denison had used a
hammer more than twice the maximum weight specified. For three years Big Ben
was taken out of commission and the hours were struck on the lowest of the
quarter bells until it was reinstalled. To make the repair, a square piece of
metal was chipped out from the rim around the crack, and the bell given an
eighth of a turn so the new hammer struck in a different place. Big Ben has
chimed with an odd twang ever since and is still in use today complete with the
crack. At the time of its casting, Big Ben was the largest bell in the British
Isles until "Great Paul", a 16¾ ton (17 tonne) bell currently hung in
St Paul's Cathedral, was cast in 1881.
from the BBC World Service radio station of the Westminster Chimes and the
twelve strikes of Big Ben, as broadcast at midnight, New Year's Day 2009.
the Great Bell, the belfry houses four quarter bells which play the Westminster
Quarters on the quarter hours. The four quarter bells sound G♯, F♯, E, and B. They were cast by John
Warner & Sons at their Crescent Foundry in 1857 (G♯, F♯ and B) and 1858 (E). The Foundry
was in Jewin Crescent, in what is now known as The Barbican, in the City of
Bells play a 20-chime sequence, 1–4 at quarter past, 5–12 at half past, 13–20
and 1–4 at quarter to, and 5–20 on the hour (which sounds 25 seconds before the
main bell tolls the hour). Because the low bell (B) is struck twice in quick
succession, there is not enough time to pull a hammer back, and it is supplied
with two wrench hammers on opposite sides of the bell. The tune is that of the
Cambridge Chimes, first used for the chimes of Great St Mary's church,
Cambridge, and supposedly a variation, attributed to William Crotch, on a
phrase from Handel's Messiah. The notional words of the chime, again derived
from Great St Mary's and in turn an allusion to Psalm 37:23–24, are: "All
through this hour/Lord be my guide/And by Thy power/No foot shall slide".
They are written on a plaque on the wall of the clock room.
One of the
requirements for the clock was that the first stroke of the hour bell should
register the time, correct to within one second per day. So, at twelve
o'clock, for example, it is the first of the twelve chimes that signifies the
hour (the New Year on New Year's Eve at midnight).
uses frame a busy Whitehall with the Big Ben Clock Tower in the background
Double-decker buses frame a busy Whitehall
with the Big Ben Clock Tower in the background
of the nickname Big Ben is the subject of some debate. The nickname was applied
first to the Great Bell; it may have been named after Sir Benjamin Hall, who
oversaw the installation of the Great Bell, or after boxing's English
Heavyweight Champion Benjamin Caunt. Now Big Ben is often used, by
extension, to refer to the clock, the tower and the bell collectively, although
the nickname is not universally accepted as referring to the clock and
tower. Some authors of works about the tower, clock and bell
sidestep the issue by using the words Big Ben first in the title, then going on
to clarify that the subject of the book is the clock and tower as well as the
Upper portion of Elizabeth Tower, as featured
in many films (here pictured in 1967).
has become a symbol of the United Kingdom and London, particularly in the
visual media. When a television or film-maker wishes to indicate a generic
location in Britain, a popular way to do so is to show an image of the tower,
often with a red double-decker bus or black cab in the foreground.
of the clock chiming has also been used this way in audio media, but as the
Westminster Quarters are heard from other clocks and other devices, the unique
nature of this sound has been considerably diluted. Big Ben is a focus of New
Year celebrations in the United Kingdom, with radio and TV stations tuning to
its chimes to welcome the start of the New Year. As well, to welcome in 2012,
the clock tower itself was lit with fireworks that exploded at every toll of
Big Ben. Similarly, on Remembrance Day, the chimes of Big Ben are broadcast
to mark the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and the start of two
minutes' silence. Londoners who live an appropriate distance from the Tower
and Big Ben can, by means of listening to the chimes both live and on analogue
radio, hear the bell strike thirteen times. This is possible due to what
amounts to an offset between live and electronically transmitted chimes since
the speed of sound is a lot slower than the speed of radio waves. Guests
are invited to count the chimes aloud as the radio is gradually turned down.
at Ten opening sequence formerly featured an image of Clock Tower with the
sound of Big Ben's chimes punctuating the announcement of the news
headlines. The Big Ben chimes (known within ITN as "The Bongs")
continue to be used during the headlines and all ITV News bulletins use a graphic
based on the Westminster clock dial. Big Ben can also be heard striking the
hour before some news bulletins on BBC Radio 4 (6 pm and midnight, plus 10 pm
on Sundays) and the BBC World Service, a practice that began on 31 December
1923. The sound of the chimes are sent in real time from a microphone
permanently installed in the tower and connected by line to Broadcasting
has appeared in many films, most notably in the 1978 version of The Thirty Nine
Steps, in which the hero, Richard Hannay, attempted to halt the clock's
progress (to prevent a linked bomb detonating) by hanging from the minute hand
of its western dial. In the fourth James Bond film, Thunderball, a mistaken
extra strike of Big Ben on the hour is designated by criminal organisation
SPECTRE to be the signal that the British Government has acceded to its nuclear
extortion demands. It was also used in the filming of Shanghai Knights starring
Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson, and was depicted as being partially destroyed in
the Doctor Who episode "Aliens of London". Big Ben was also featured
in the closing scene of James McTeigue's film V for Vendetta in which a
futuristic depiction of Guy Fawkes succeeds in blowing up parliament, and the
tower's bells and pendulum are sounded with a final screech at the beginning of
the explosion. The apparent "thirteen chimes" detailed above was also
a major plot device in the Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons episode, "Big
Ben Strikes Again". It has featured prominently in several animated Walt
Disney films, including The Great Mouse Detective, Peter Pan and Cars 2.
close of the polls for the 2010 General Election the results of the national
exit poll were projected onto the south side of the clock tower.
Upper portion of Elizabeth Tower, as featured in many films (here pictured in 1967).