History of Big Ben


The Beginning

Big Ben is the nickname given to the great bell of the Clock in the Elizabeth tower that is situated in Westminster, London. Before the great Big Ben there was “Great Tom”, a clock tower at the Palace of Westminster. In the late 17th century it was sold to St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. The massive tower clock is famous for its accuracy.

On the night of October 16th, 1834, a huge fire destroyed the palace of Westminster, the home of Britain’s Parliament. It was said that the architect Charles Barry saw the glow of fire from distance on his return to London from Brighton and discovered that the house of parliament was on fire.
13 months later in November 1835 a committee was set up to rebuild the tower and more than 400 designs were submitted by 90 architects.

Charles Barry’s neo-gothic design was chosen by the committee, but it did not include a clock tower and the parliament was determined to incorporate an impressive clock tower in the new building.


The Design of Big Ben

Augustus Pugin was hired for the design of the clock tower. The clock tower was constructed on the northern extremity of the new Houses of Parliament that were built next to Westminster Hall. The commission for the clock itself demanded a high level of accuracy; Astronomer Royal George Airy was asked to list requirements and design for the great clock.

A key requirement was that the first strike for each hour should be accurate to within ONE second of time which sounded almost impossible, and furthermore twice a day it should telecommunicate its performance to Greenwich Observatory, where a record would be kept.In 1849 a lawyer and an amateur horologist Edmund Beckett Denison was appointed to design the clock and construction of the clock was entrusted to Edward John Dent the clock maker.

He worked with Edward Dent, to design the clock which would become the Great Clock in the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster.


Elizabeth Tower

The Elizabeth Tower is designed in Augustus Pugin’s most noted Gothic Revival style. The Elizabeth tower is 315 feet (96 meters) tall and has 11 floors and the construction required 850 cubic meters of stone and 2600 cubic meters of bricks.

A person needs to climb 334 limestone steps to see the top of the Elizabeth Tower. The Clock Tower has an inclination of about 0.04 degrees slightly towards the north-west. There are weights attached to cables. Engineers wind these cables thrice a week. The trains rotate as the weights are pulled down by gravity.

The Clock is wound three times every week by engineers to make certain it works properly.


The Making of Great Clock

The official name of the clock is The Great Westminster Clock. The Clock and dials were designed by Augustus Pugin. The clock dials face on all four sides of the tower 23 feet in diameter, supporting 312 pieces of opal glass, rather like a stained-glass window. The length of each hour hand is 2.7 meters and weighs around 300 kg and the length of each miniature hand is 4.2 meters and weighs around 100 kg. Every number on the dial is 2 feet tall.

Denison invented the double three-legged gravity escapement. The going train of the clock is regulated by the escapement and it allows the energy to escape to the pendulum. The pendulum is 16 feet long and weighs 660 pounds and beats every two seconds.
The pendulum is placed in an enclosed wind resistant box underneath the clock room. In 1853 Edward John Dent died and the clock mechanism was completed by his stepson Frederick Dent. The construction of the tower completed in 1859.

history of big ben the great bell

The Big Ben Hour Bell

The hour bell of Big Ben was also designed by Denison. One bell for the hour and four bells for the quarter hours. The bells chimes on a tune based on an aria from Handel’s Messiah. The famous “Westminster Chime” just before the Big Ben strikes the hour.

The prototype cast of the hour bell was in Stockton-on-Tees on August 6, 1856 by John Warner and Sons.
On 17th October 1857 the bell cracked beyond repair during testing since the tower was not completed, they mounted the bell in the New Palace Yard and struck it regularly for testing. George Mears of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was appointed to recast the bell which he successfully did in 1858.

The new bell is 7 feet 6 inches tall and 9 feet in diameter and weighs 13.5 tons.

history of big ben the great bell testingThe four quarter bells were cast by Warner and sons. Big Ben rang for the first time in May 1859 and the Great Bell chimed for the first time on 11 July 1859. But the bell was cracked again by the same hammer strike which was responsible for the damage of original bell.

This time they could not move the bell out of the belfry and cast it again, so they turned the bell to quarter and replace the hammer with a lighter hammer. In 1862 the striking of the bell hours chimed again.

Naming Big Ben

The Bell was initially meant to be named Royal Victoria. The origin of the name Big Ben is still a subject of debate. There two different theories one is it is after Sir Benjamin Hall who was also known as “Big Ben”, he was the first commissioner of works and who oversaw the installation of the Great Bell. His name is also inscribed on the bell.

The other theory is that it is named after Benjamin Caunt the famous English heavy weight boxing champion whose nickname was “Big Ben”. Both the Clock and Tower are now called referred as Big Ben.

history of big ben

Fun Facts about Big Ben

  1. The clock has become a cultural image of the United Kingdom significantly within the visual media.
  2. Only residents of United Kingdom can go inside Big Ben. They must give a written application to the MP and arrange a visit.
  3. According to a survey of 2000 people it was found that the iconic clock tower is considered as the most famous landmark of the United Kingdom.
  4. The first chimes of Big Ben were aired to the country by BBC during New Year Eve’s radio broadcast in1923.
  5. Every year on New Year’s the Bell has been traditionally the Focal point of the start of the New Year and the sounds of the chimes were aired on television and radio broadcasts to the crowd.
  6. The chimes of Big Ben are broadcasted to mark the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and the start of the two minutes’ silence on Remembrance Day.
  7. Big Ben weighs more than 13 tons that is (13760kg).
  8. In order to tribute Queen Elizabeth II in her diamond jubilee year the Clock Tower was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012.
  9. Nearly 75000 residents of United Kingdom visit Big Ben annually.
  10. Big Ben will be silenced from August 2017 till 2021 for repair and renovations purpose.