Big Ben's First Ring: 1859's Debut Of The Global Landmark

By | May 28, 2020

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(Isaac Bordas)

Visitors from around the world travel to London to see Big Ben, one of the greatest and most well-known artifacts in the Western world. Rivaling the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower for global prominence, Big Ben isn't just a piece of history that children briefly learn about in school; it's a living, breathing part of English culture.

Almost A Big Sundial

Big Ben, Elizabeth Tower, the Clock Tower—whatever you want to call it—isn't the first such tower to exist where it stands. The original tower was constructed between 1288 and 1290 during the reign of King Edward I. It housed a large bell named Great Edward that struck every hour on the hour, but that tower was replaced in 1367. Over the next 350 years, its upkeep was ignored, and it fell to shambles.

Rather than build a new tower, England decided to put a sundial in its place in 1707. The sundial stood at the north end of Westminster Palace until a fire destroyed most of the grounds in 1834, and when it came time to rebuild, architects were asked to submit designs for a new palace grounds.

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(Wikimedia Commons)

A Disturbed Designer

Sir Charles Barry's design was chosen, but it didn't feature a clock tower or even a sundial. For that task, Barry turned to Augustus Pugin, an architect who pioneered the Gothic Revival style of architecture. Over the course of his life, Pugin designed many churches, giving them awe-inspiring angles and a medieval look. By Pugin's own account, his design for the clock tower was the culmination of his life's work and one of the most intense experiences of his life. In his journals, he wrote of his time planning the tower:

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.

After turning in his designs for the tower, Pugin suffered a nervous breakdown that left him unable to speak coherently or recognize his closest friends. He passed away in 1852 from "convulsions followed by coma" seven years before the first strike of Big Ben.