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Big Ben

popular name for a bell

On October 16, 1834, the Palace of Westminster was almost completely destroyed by fire. In 1844, Parliament decided that its new building, by then well under construction, should include a clock tower. Architect Charles Barry was put in charge of designing the tower, and the clock specifications were drawn up by Royal Astronomer George Airy, who decided that "... the first stroke of the hour bell should register the time, correct to within one second per day, and furthermore that it should telegraph its performance twice a day to Greenwich Observatory, where a record would be kept." After much debate over whether Airy's specifications could be met, Edmund Beckett Denison (later Sir Edmund Beckett, the first Baron Grimthorpe) took up the task of designing the clock mechanism, which was subsequently built by Messrs E.J. Dent & Co.; it was completed in 1854. The job of casting the bells -- four quarter chimes and one large bell for sounding the hours -- was "given" to John Warner & Sons. It is the large bell that has become known as Big Ben.

Airy's specifications called for an hour bell that was much larger than any ever cast in England, as well as for a metal alloy never before used in bell casting. The 16-ton bell was cast in Stockton-on-Tees in August of 1856 and then transported to London on a trolley drawn by sixteen horses, with crowds cheering its progress. The tower was not yet finished, however, so the bell was hung in the Palace Yard for testing. Unfortunately, the bell developed a 4-foot-long crack while being tested, on October 17, 1857.

The second Great Bell, as Big Ben is officially known, was cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry on April 10, 1858. Although it was still the largest bell in Britain at the time, this bell was lighter than the first, "only" 13.5 tons. The clock tower (then known as St. Stephen's Tower) was completed in 1859, and the clock began keeping time on May 31st of that year. Big Ben chimed for the first time on July 11th.

Big Ben
Big Ben

In September of 1859, Big Ben cracked after its first chime. It remained silent for the next four years, during which time it was determined that the hammer specified in Denison's design was too large. Airy finally decided that, rather than starting over yet again, the best solution was to simply turn the bell so that an undamaged portion would be struck, by a smaller hammer; he also had a small square cut into the bell to keep the crack from spreading. This fix was carried out in 1863, and Big Ben continues to sport a crack to this day.

On September 12, 2012, the 316-foot clock tower was renamed Elizabeth Tower in honor of Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee.

the Elizabeth Tower
the Elizabeth Tower

Bell Specifications

diameter 8'8"
height 7'2"
can be heard up to 9 miles away

the Quarter Bells sound G#, F#, E, and B

As for the origins of the name "Big Ben," the most common story says that it came from Benjamin Hall, the first Commissioner of Works, who oversaw its installation. Another story claims it was named for Benjamin Caunt, a heavyweight boxing champion who won his last fight in 1857, at the age of 42.

Clock Specifications

officially known as the Great Clock of Westminster

total weight 5-1/2 tons

four clock faces, each 180' above ground level and 23' in diameter
each hour hand is 9' long
each minute and is 14; long
the numbers are 2' high

The accuracy of the clock's mechanism is regulated by the simple act of adding to or subtracting from a small stack of pennies on a shoulder of the pendulum. So well designed and built, it has only suffered one major mechanical breakdown in its lifetime, on August 5, 1976, when metal fatigue caused a sudden fracture in the chiming mechanism; repairs took about nine months, and the clock was restarted on May 9, 1977. It even kept on "ticking" after the nearby House of Commons chambers were destroyed by bombs during World War II.


U. K. Parliament
Whitechapel Bell Foundry

See Also

Queen Elizabeth II
World War II

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This page was last updated on January 17, 2019.