The history of the Big Ben Clock Tower at Westminster dates back to the 13th Century but the tower as we now know it has its roots in 19th Century Britain.
In 1834 a fire ravaged the Palace of Westminster, destroying the majority of the buildings.
When the time came to rebuild, there was an open invitation to architects to rebuild the ‘mother of parliaments’ and to add a clock tower. Any architect worth their salt knows how to build a tower, but how about the clock?
The British Parliament’s commission for the new buildings was won by Charles Barry, who was asked to add a clock tower to his design.
But he was not a clockmaker so the task of designing the clock was entrusted to the seventh Astronomer Royal, George Airy, director of Royal Greenwich Observatory Royal Observatory.
Airy’s list of requirements, or specifications, as it would be called these days, was neither short not simple.
As a scientist, Airy wanted precise time-keeping. As the director of the Greenwich Observatory he also requested that the hourly strikes would be so accurate that it would never be more than a second away from Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).
Many clock-makers found these requirements quite impossible to achieve.
Maybe it is part of the unusual Big Ben story that the man who solved the puzzle was not even a professional clock-maker, but an MP and a barrister. He did have a hobby, though, and his private passion worked miracles.
His name? Edmund Beckett Denison.
Denison's innovative ‘Double Three-Legged Gravity Escapement’ guaranteed the clock’s accuracy by ensuring that no external factors would be able to influence the workings of the pendulum.
He worked with Edward Dent to provide the best gap between the pendulum and the clock mechanism, thus assuring its dependability.
The Bell was originally made by Warners of Cripplegate but unfortunately it cracked under testing. This bell was smashed up and re-cast by the Whitechapel Foundry and became what is now known as ‘Big Ben’.
Do you know how ‘The Great Bell’ made its way from the foundry to the top of the iconic tower? The journey was one to remember.
The Big Ben bell is famous for its majestic chimes. Listento sample recordings of the quarter bells and hour strikes.
The clock mechanism is also renowned for its reliability and has steadily kept time over the years with very few exceptions:
- The bell cracked just three months after it was installed. This was eventually corrected and has given Big Ben its distinctive sound.
- 1939-1945 – the illumination of the clocks was stopped to conform with the blackout rules.
- 1976 – Big Ben remained chime-less for nine months after the clock mechanism exploded, causing heavy damage.
- 2007 – Silence for seven weeks as the clock underwent essential maintenance ahead of its 150th birthday in 2009.
- 2017 - Silence period started on 21 August 2017, before the beginning of major renovation work. You can read more on the British Parliament website, which has a section devoted to questions and answers.
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