With a name like “Big Ben” one might think we’re talking about a North American grizzly bear. Big Ben is actually a famous clock on top of 320-foot-high St. Stephen’s tower. Those classic pictures of the British Houses of Parliament in London wouldn’t be the same without that famous tower-clock. If you’d been around to view the seat of the British government before 1859, Big Ben wouldn’t have been part of that famous landscape.
The famous clock rang out over the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, for the first time on May 31st, 1859.
When fire destroyed the bulk of the Palace of Westminster, formerly the seat of the British Parliament in October 1834, the most impressive feature of the design for the new palace was a clock on top of a tower.
While many clockmakers thought it impossible, Sir George Airy, the royal astronomer, wanted the clock to keep perfect time with twice-a-day checks with the Royal Greenwich Observatory (GMT-Greenwich Mean Time).
Airy depended on Edmund Beckett Denison, a formidable barrister known for his expertise in the science of measuring time to design the clock. Denison’s clock was actually built by E.J. Dent & Co., and was completed in 1854 and five years later St. Stephen’s tower was finished. Weighing more than 13 tons, the massive bell was dragged to the tower through the streets of London by a team of 16 horses.
Once installed, Big Ben struck its first chime on May 31, 1859. Two months later the heavy striker cracked the bell. It took three years to add a lighter hammer and the clock went into service again. The huge bell was rotated so that the hammer would strike a different surface, but the crack was never repaired.
The name “Big Ben” actually applies to the bell itself, but people usually think it refers to the entire clock. There are a couple of stories that exist as to the origin of the name. Some claim it was named for long-winded Sir Benjamin Hall, the commissioner of works when it was built. Others believe the bell was named for the popular for the popular heavyweight boxer Benjamin Caunt, because it was the largest bell of its kind.
During World War Two, a bomb destroyed the chamber of the House of Commons, but St. Stephen’s Tower remained intact and Big Ben continued to function. Interestingly enough its accurate timekeeping is regulated by a stack of coins placed on the clock’s huge pendulum. This ensures steady movement of the clock hands at all times. At night, all four of the clock’s 23 foot faces are illuminated. Additionally a light above Big Ben lets the public know when Parliament is in session.