In 1834, there was a massive fire that started accidentally in the basement area of the House of Lords. It burnt down almost the entire Palace of Westminster! Eventually there was a competition held and a design submitted by Charles Barry, an architect, was the winning entry for the new building. His suggestion was an immense clock tower. Later, a horologist (someone who studies and makes time measurement devices), called Edmund Denison, created the Great Clock’s design. Finally, it was Edward Dent, a clockmaker, who did the actual construction. Work on the Great Clock started on May 31, 1859 and was complete by July 11 that same year.
Different types of stone are used for the clock tower. The outside uses stone brought from Yorkshire, while the inside uses Normandy Caen stone. Iron plates cover the tall spire at the top. There are a few rooms inside that were originally used in the 1800s as a holding area for members of Parliament who breached certain codes. The last time that it was ever used was in 1880. A Parliament member called Charles Bradlaugh refused to swear on the Bible that he would be loyal to Queen Victoria.
The Great Clock’s timing is precise to within a second. Some of the weights it still uses today include early pennies (when twelve pennies equaled a shilling). When the bell rings, the first strike marks the beginning of the new hour, since it can take a little while if there are several chimes as at twelve o’clock. There is even a microphone so that the BBC can broadcast the clock’s chimes on radio, television, or the Internet. Just over the belfry (the area where the bell hangs) is a light known as the Ayrton Light. If either of the Houses are still sitting after the sun has gone down, the Ayrton Light is lit. It was placed there in 1885, well before electric lights became widely used!
Many people wonder how Big Ben ever got its name. Some say that the name was derived after Sir Benjamin Hall, who was a politician as well as a civil engineer. He was responsible for overseeing the installation of the bell. The very first bell was transferred from Stockton-on-Tees (in the north-east) to London by sea and rail. However, during testing, they found that there was a large crack in the bell. It had to be broken, and another one was made. The second bell proved to be strong and sturdy, so it was installed in the Clock Tower. Sadly, a few months later, even this bell showed cracks. Nobody fixed it until four years later! In 1863, repairs were made and they installed a hammer that hit the bell with less impact.