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What You Didn’t Know About Big Ben

British History | June 10, 2019

Fireworks light up the London skyline just after midnight on January 1, 2009 in England. Source: (Photo by Oli Scarff gettyimages.com)

Big Ben … that big clock high on a tower is a symbol of London. This 160-year-old landmark keeps Londoners punctual and provides a backdrop for iconic tourist pics, but beyond that, how much do you know about Big Ben? Throughout its history, the world’s best-known clock has had many facelifts, but it remains one of the most recognizable places on the planet. Here is what you probably didn’t know about Big Ben.

Source: (wornandwound.com)

Big Ben Rose Out of the Ashes

Well, not exactly. But a fire destroyed the headquarters of the British Parliament, located at the Palace of Westminster, in October of 1834. When rebuilding started, the architect included a giant clock to be mounted atop the 320-foot tall St. Stephen’s Tower, which was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012 in honor of the Queen’s 50th Jubilee. The clock could be used to call Parliament to order and signal important decisions. It rang for the very first time on May 31, 1859. 

Was Big Ben named after a bare-knuckle boxer? Source: (dailymail.co.uk)

Big Ben is the Name of the Bell, Not the Clock

Originally, the nickname Big Ben was applied to the bell that chimes in the clock tower, but over time, it used to refer to the clock itself. So, why is it called Big Ben in the first place? There are two different stories circulating to explain this nickname. One story says that the bell was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, London’s Commissioner of Works in 1859. The other story claims that the bell was named for the enormous and popular heavyweight boxer, Benjamin Caunt, because, like the boxer, the bell was the biggest of its kind. 

Source: (theconversation.com)

Big Big Ben

The clock is the largest four-faced clock in the world. Each clock face is 23 feet in diameter and is positioned 180 feet above the ground. The clock’s minute hand is 14 feet long and the hour hand is 9 feet long. The pendulum is 3 feet, 9 inches in length. It is a big clock that is visible around the city, so no one has an excuse for running late. 

Source: (fineartamerica.com)

Big Ben Battles Smog ... And Loses

Originally, the hands on Big Ben were painted blue. But the infamous London smog kept discoloring the hands, turning them black. Maintenance workers had to repaint the hands on a regular basis. Finally, in the 1980s, they had had enough. This time, they painted the hands black so that smog grime wouldn’t be visible. The workers finally realized you can’t beat the London smog. 

Sir George Airy. Source: (rmg.co.uk)

A Persnickety Londoner Insisted on Accuracy

When construction started on the clock tower and clock, one Londoner, Sir George Airy, the Royal Astronomer, insisted that the clock be accurate to a tenth of a second. He even called for twice-daily checks with the Royal Greenwich Observatory to make sure to maintain accuracy. Most clockmakers at the time felt that this was an impossible goal, but Airy turned to a lawyer, Edmund Beckett Denison, for help. Denison’s hobby? Horology, the science of measuring time. Together they were able to produce a clock that is extremely accurate – except for a few times. Once a flock of starlings roosted on one of the clock’s hands and held back time for a few seconds. Another time, heavy snow messed with the clock’s accuracy. 

Source: (express.co.uk)

A Musical Tone

When the bell, which is seven and a half feet tall and weighs about 13 tons, is struck, the tone that you hear is the musical note E. 

Big Ben survived the blitzkrieg. Source: (ww2today.com)

Big Ben Beat the Blitzkrieg

During World War II, German fighter pilots dropped bombs on London in what is now called the Blitzkrieg, or “lightning war.” The city had ‘blackout rules’, asking citizens to extinguish all lights at night so as to not give the Germans a target. This applied to Big Ben, too. From 1939 to 1945, the clock dials were unlit. However, late at night on May 10, 1941, a German bomb struck Big Ben’s clock tower. The decorative ironwork at the top of the tower was damaged, but the tower and the clock remained unscathed. This gave hope to Londoners during bombing raids. If Big Ben could fight off the Germans, then so could they. 

Source: (parliament.uk)

What Do Big Ben and the Liberty Bell Have in Common?

Cracks. But while America’s Liberty Bell flaunts her flaws, the Big Ben bell has undergone several repairs to mend its crack. Despite this, it is a fully operational bell. Big Ben can be heard ringing every 15 minutes in London and the sound can be heard about five miles away. 

Scaffolding surrounds Big Ben during renovations. Source: (news.sky.com)

A Facelift

Big Ben is currently undergoing a facelift. Scaffolding can be seen outside the tower and the bell has been silenced. Part of the renovations include adding bathrooms – the first time toilets will be included in the structure – and including an elevator, so tourists don’t have to climb the more than 300 steps to the top of the tower. 

Tags: Big Ben | british history

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.