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Historical Watches: Big Ben, The Great Clock

By Kingsley Walcott

History of Big Ben

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.

A Look at the Clock Tower

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.

Examining the Great Clock

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!

The Big Ben Bell

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.

  • Did You Know?

    • Although people call the entire structure Big Ben, the name is actually supposed to only be in reference to the Great Bell.
    • The very first time that the BBC broadcast the bell’s chimes was on New Year’s Eve of 1923.
    • In the early days, the dials of the clock were powered by gas. By comparison, they use electricity today with energy efficient bulbs. Talk about progress!
    • The Westminster Chimes always sound before the hour bell strikes. The chimes were actually set to a set of lyrics. Try singing this along with the chimes: “All through this hour, Lord be my guide. And by thy power, no foot shall slide.”
    • The Clock Tower stands over 300 feet tall. Inside are 334 stairs up to the belfry, followed by an extra fifty nine leading up to the Ayrton Light.
    • The clock dials use cast iron frames and sections of glazed glass.
    • Each hour hand weighs roughly 300 kilograms! By comparison, the smaller minute hands are around a hundred kilograms each.
    • The clock itself is almost five tons! It has a pendulum of over three hundred kilograms.
    • The bell is over seven feet high and incredibly, it weighs close to fourteen tons. The hammer used to strike the clock is two hundred kilograms.
    • Find the best prices on Rolex watches for sale like the Submariner collection, Rolex Daytona, and Rolex GMT.