Big Ben

From Academic Kids

For clock towers in general, see clock tower. For other uses of Big Ben, see Big Ben (disambiguation)
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The Clock Tower, colloquially known as Big Ben

Big Ben is the colloquial name of the Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster in London and an informal name for the Great Bell of Westminster, part of the Great Clock of Westminster. The clock tower is located at the northwestern end of the building, the home of the Houses of Parliament, and contains the famous striking clock and bell.



"Big Ben" is the most commonly used name for the Clock Tower, which is itself also known as St. Stephen's Tower. That name may have come from St. Stephen's Hall, the western wing of the Palace of Westminster, which is the entrance used by visitors wishing to view the proceedings of the Houses of Parliament, and British subjects wishing to lobby their MPs.

However, it is more accurate to call the bell "Big Ben". One theory says that the bell was given that name after Sir Benjamin Hall, the Chief Commissioner of Works. Another theory suggests that at the time anything which was heaviest of its kind was called "Big Ben" after the then-famous prizefighter Benjamin Caunt, making it a natural name for the bell.

Big Ben is commonly taken to be the name of the clock tower itself, but this is incorrect - the tower is simply known as The Clock Tower. Sometimes, the tower is referred to as St. Stephen's Tower, but this title is not used by staff of the Palace of Westminster.

History and construction

The Clock Tower

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The Palace of Westminster and the Clock Tower on the north-western end, from Westminster Bridge

The tower was raised as a part of Charles Barry's design of a new palace, after the old Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire on the night of October 16, 1834. The tower is designed in the Victorian Gothic style, and is 96.3 m (316 ft) high.

The tower consists of brickwork with stone cladding, that is 61 metres (200 ft) high; the remainder of the tower's height is accounted for by a framed spire of cast iron. The tower is founded on a 15 by 15 metre (49 by 49 ft) raft, which is is made of 3 metre (9 ft) thick concrete, extending for 7 metres (23 ft) below ground level. The tower has an estimated weight of 8,667,588 kg. The four clock faces are 55 metres (180 ft) above ground.

Due to ground conditions present since construction, the tower leans slightly to the north-west, by roughly 220 mm. It also oscillates annually by a few millimetres east and west, due to thermal effects. [1] (

The clock

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The face of the Great Clock of Westminster. The 5 foot 4 inch person (1.63 m) has been inserted into the picture at correct scale. The hour hand is 9 feet (2.7 m) long and the minute hand is 14 feet (4.3 m) long

The clock in the tower was once the biggest in the world. One of the specifications of the clock was that it has to strike the first blow for each hour with an accuracy of one second. The mechanism of the clock was completed in 1854, but the tower was not yet ready by then.

The name Big Ben was first applied to a 16 ton hour bell, cast in 1856. Again, the tower was not finished yet, and the bell was mounted in the New Palace Yard. The bell cracked, and its metal was used to recast the 13,800 kg bell in use today. Along with four quarter bells, it was mounted in the tower in 1858.

The clock and the bells become fully operational on September 7, 1859. Yet, less than a month later, the hour bell developed a crack after being struck by the same hammer that broke the first hour bell. Then, for two years, the bell was substituted by the largest of the quarter bells. The hour bell was rotated so that the hammer omits the crack, and the bell became operational again in 1862.

The mechanism of the clock and of the chimes was overhauled several times since then.

The Great Bell of Westminster

The bell weighs 13.762 tonnes (13 long tons 10 cwt 99 lb or 30,339 lb), with a striking hammer weighing 203 kg (4 cwt), and was originally tuned to E. There is delay of 5 seconds between strikes. It is a common misconception that Big Ben is the heaviest bell in Britain. In fact, it is only the third heaviest, the second heaviest being Great George found at Liverpool Cathedral at 14 tons 15 cwt 2 qtr 2 lb (33,098 lb or 15.013 Mg) and the heaviest being Great Paul found at St Paul's Cathedral at 16 tons 14 cwt 2 qtr 19 lb (37483 lb or 17.002 t).

The original tower designs demanded a 14 long ton (14 t) bell to be struck with a 6 cwt (300 kg) hammer. A bell was produced by John Warner and Sons in 1856, weighing 16 tons (long or metric). However, this cracked under test in the Palace Yard. The contract for the bell was then given to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, who in 1858 re-cast the bell into the 13.8 t bell used today. It too started to crack under the 6 cwt (300 kg) hammer, and a legal battle arose. After two years of having the Great Bell out of commission, the 6 cwt (300 kg) hammer was replaced with a lighter 4 cwt (200 kg) hammer, and the bell itself was turned 90 degrees so the crack would not develop any further, coming back into use in 1862. However, the crack, now filled, and the turn meant that it no longer struck a true E.

Other bells

Along with the main bell, the belfry houses four quarter bells which play the Westminster Quarters, derived from Handel's Messiah, on the quarter hours. The C note in the chime is repeated twice in quick succession, faster than the chiming train can draw back the hammers, so the C bell uses two separate hammers.

Similar turret clocks

A 20-foot (6 m) metal replica of the clock tower known as Little Ben, complete with working clock, stands on a traffic island close to Victoria Station. Several turret clocks around the world are inspired by the look of the Great Clock, including the clock tower of the Gare de Lyon in Paris and the Peace Tower of the Parliament of Canada in Ottawa.


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The Clock Tower at dusk, with The London Eye in the background.

The clock is famous for its reliability. This is due to its designer, the lawyer and amateur horologist Edmund Beckett Denison, later Lord Grimthorpe. As the clock mechanism, created to Denison's specification by clockmaker Edward John Dent, was completed before the tower itself was finished, Denison had time to experiment with the clock. 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. Together with an enclosed, wind-proof box sunk beneath the clockroom, the Great Clock's pendulum is well isolated from external factors like snow, ice and pigeons on the clock hands, and keeps remarkably accurate time.

The idiom of putting a penny on, with the meaning of slowing down, sprung from the method of fine-tuning the clock's pendulum by adding or subtracting penny-coins. Even to this day, only old pennies, phased out of British currency during the 1971 decimalisation, are used.

Despite heaving bombing, it ran accurately throughout The Blitz. It slowed down on New Year's Eve 1962 due to heavy snow, causing it to chime in the new year 10 minutes late.

The clock had its first and only major breakdown in 1976. The chiming mechanism broke due to metal fatigue on August 5, 1976, and was reactivated again on May 9. During this time BBC Radio Four had to make do with the pips.

It stopped 30 April 1997, the day before the general election, and again three weeks later.

On Friday, May 27, 2005 the clock stopped ticking for 90 minutes from 10:07pm, possibly due to hot weather (temperatures in London had reached an unseasonal 31.8°C/90°F). It resumed keeping time, but stalled again at 10:20 p.m. and remained still for about 90 minutes before starting up again. [2] (


Big Ben is a cultural monument of the UK
Big Ben is a cultural monument of the UK

Big Ben is a focus of New Year celebrations in the UK, with radio and TV stations tuning to its chimes to welcome the 'official' start of the year. 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.

For many years ITN's "News at Ten" began with an opening sequence which featured Big Ben with the chimes punctuating the announcement of the news headlines. This has since been dropped, but all ITV1 and ITV News Channel bulletins still use a graphic based on the Westminster clock face. Big Ben can also be heard striking the hour before some news bulletins on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service, a practice that began on December 31, 1923.

The clock features in John Buchan's spy novel The Thirty-Nine Steps and makes for a memorable climax in Don Sharp's 1978 film version, although not in Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 original adaptation. A similar scene is recreated in the 2003 film, Shanghai Knights which culminates with Jackie Chan hanging from the hands of the clock. In Aliens of London, the fourth episode of the 2005 series of Doctor Who, an alien spacecraft crashes through the clock, destroying it on the way to a splashdown in the River Thames. The clock also appears in The Empty Child in the same series. The clock also features in the climax of the animated film Basil, the Great Mouse Detective.

An earlier film climax on the clock face of Big Ben appears in Will Hay's 1943 film My Learned Friend, although the scene is more slapstick than thriller.

External links

de:Big_Ben he:ביג בן ja:ビッグ・ベン nl:Big Ben no:Big Ben pl:Big Ben pt:Big Ben fi:Big Ben sv:Big Ben


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