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Big Ben's Past and Present

At exactly 00:00:00 GMT on January 1, our planet started the year 2010 with the sound of Big Ben. Nine years ago the strikes of Big Ben symbolized the beginning of the third millennium on our planet.

It is one of the most famous symbols of London. Even those who had never been to London will easily recognize it because Big Ben has been featured on postcards, stamps and the covers of the English language textbooks around the world. It is really one of the most photographed places in London and may be in the whole world. London’s Big Ben celebrated its 150th birthday on May 31st, 2009.

The designers of the clock were the lawyer and amateur horologist Edmund Beckett Denison, and George Airy, the Astronomer Royal. Construction was entrusted to clockmaker Edward John Dent, who died in 1853 and his stepson, Frederick, completed the work in 1854. Edmund Beckett Denison became involved in the design of the bells for the clock, in particular Big Ben.

Located at the north-eastern end of the Palace of Westminster in London, the St. Stephen’s Tower or the Clock Tower is known to the people of the world as Big Ben. It is the largest four-faced chiming clock and the third-tallest free-standing clock tower in the world. Although most people refer to the whole tower as the Big Ben Clock Tower, the name Big Ben actually refers to the bell housed within the tower. The bell itself weighs almost 14 tons. The four clock faces of the Big Ben are each 23 feet in diameter; the biggest of its kind when it was constructed. On May 31, 1859 the clock officially started keeping time. Big Ben started tolling a few days later, but within months it cracked and didn’t resume service until 1862. The quarter bells started striking on 7 September, 1959.

In 1834 a terrible fire destroyed most of the Palace of Westminster. There were 97 designs of the new Palace. The most successful of them was Sir Charles Barry’s, a famous architect. The new Parliament (the Palace of Westminster) was to be built in a Neo-gothic style. Although Barry was the chief architect of the Palace, he turned to Augustus Pugin for the design of the clock tower. The construction of the Clock Tower began in September 1843.

Big Ben stands 314-feet high. The bottom 61 metres (200 ft) of the Clock Tower’s structure consists of brickwork with sand-colored limestone cladding. The remainder of the tower’s height is a framed spire of cast iron. The tower is founded on a 15-metre (49 ft) square raft, made of thick concrete. The four clock faces are 55 metres (180 ft) above ground. There is no elevator so the few that are granted admission must climb 334 limestone stairs. Over the years, Big Ben history included the changing of the tower itself. Due to ground conditions, the Big Ben Clock Tower now leans slightly to the Northwest, and also moves back and forth by a few millimeters each year.

Until the Westminster clock tower, the largest bell ever cast in Britain was Great Peter in York Minster. As the Tower was not complete until 1859, Denison had time to experiment. His plan, named the ‘Double Three-legged Gravity Escapement’ had an element of mad genius about it. Denison proposed a mechanism to isolate the pendulum from the clock hands in the name of accuracy. The bell was to weigh an impressive 16 tons. His suggestion was followed by mocking and disbelieving comments. But Denison was sure that his own design, method and alloy recipe would allow him to create a larger bell. So a 16-ton monster was cast at the Warner & Sons foundry in Stockton-on-Tees in August 1856. Too wide to be transported by rail, it arrived at the Port of London by sea. From there it was pulled across Westminster Bridge by 16 horses. The bell was hung in New Palace Yard. It was tested each day until 17 October 1857 when a 1.2m crack appeared. It was decided to make the second bell and it was cast on 10 April 1858. This bell was 2.5 tones lighter than the first. Its dimensions meant it was too large to fit up the Clock Tower’s shaft vertically. So Big Ben was turned on its side and winched up. It took 30 hours to winch the bell to the belfry in October 1858. The four quarter bells, which chime on the quarter of an hour were already in the place.

Big Ben rang out on 11 July 1859 but its success was short-lived. In September 1859, the new bell also cracked and Big Ben was silent for four years. During this time, the hour was struck on the fourth quarter bell. As an editorial in The Times wrote, ‘What is to be done about the Westminster Bell? It is becoming a serious affair, for all England is compromised.’

At first lawmakers complained that the sound of Big Ben was too loud, while the Times of London wrote that the blunders surrounding the project were “a disgrace to all concerned in it.” The total cost of making the clock and bells and installing them in the Clock Tower reached £22,000.

Officially, the Clock Tower’s bell is called the Great Bell though it is better known by the name ‘Big Ben’. The fact that the bell should have ever received its title is very curious. The first bell was originally to be called “Victoria” or “Royal Victoria” in honour of Queen Victoria. But it was never officially named and its nickname Big Ben is the subject of some debate. The legend goes that it was nicknamed after the Commissioner of Public Works at the time, Benjamin Hall. Another theory for the origin of the name is that the bell may have been named after a contemporary heavyweight boxer Benjamin Caunt.

Each face is 7m in diameter and has 312 separate pieces of pot-opal glass panels framed by gun metal, rather like a stained-glass window. Some of the glass pieces may be removed for inspection, cleaning and maintenance of the clock hands. The surround of the dials is gilded. At the base of each clock face in gilt letters is the Latin inscription: DOMINE SALVAM FAC REGINAM NOSTRAM VICTORIAM PRIMAM which means O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First. To the left and to the right of the clock there is another Latin inscription: «Laus Deo» which means «Thanks God». Illumination of each dial is performed in an old-fashioned manner by 28 energy-efficient bulbs at 85W each.

The bongs of Big Ben are heard every hour. Along with the Great Bell, the belfry houses four quarter bells which play the Westminster Quarters. The four quarter bells are G#, F#, E, and B and their chime rings out on the quarter hours. Their tune is based on Handel’s Messiah, a phrase from the aria I Know that My Redeemer Liveth. They were set to verse and the words are inscribed on a plaque in Big Ben’s clock room:

All through this hour
Lord be my Guide
That by Thy Power
No foot shall slide

The history of Big Ben recorded the clock’s remarkable reliability. The engineering of the clock provides protection of the mechanisms from climate changes and harsh weather. Though the clock has experienced slowing at various times through its history, the clock continued to run accurately even during The Blitz of World War II.

The clock is accurate to within one second per day and Big Ben remains the largest and most accurate striking mechanical clock in the world. The idiom of putting a penny on, with the meaning of slowing down, sprang from the method of fine-tuning the clock’s pendulum.

Pre-decimal-currency pennies are still used by the Palace of Westminster’s three appointed clockmakers to regulate the clock mechanism. Adding one penny causes the clock to gain two-fifths of a second in 24 hours.

“It’s a typical piece of Victorian engineering,” said Mike McCann, the keeper of the great clock. “It will last for hundreds of years. Mainly we wind it three times a week. It is clockwork. A lot of people seem to think that it’s some sort of electronic clock but it’s entirely clockwork, driven by weights which need winding. So the main maintenance work really is winding it three times a week, oiling it and keeping it accurate.”

The clock undergoes maintenance work, including a thorough cleaning of the clock face, every five years. The restoration programme has been carried out before the clock’s 150th anniversary in 2009. The hourly bongs and the quarter bells of the clock at Westminster Palace in central London were silent for seven weeks. The works included the replacement of bearings that sound the chimes.

Despite being one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions, the interior of the tower is not open to the general public due to security concerns, although from time to time press and other VIPs are granted access. Children under 11 are not allowed inside, nor are overseas visitors.

The south clock face being cleaned on August 11, 2007

Big Ben’s 150th Anniversary Year

During 2009 Parliament celebrated the 150th anniversary of its world famous Clock Tower, Great Clock and Great Bell. Some special events were planned to commemorate the 150th birthday of Big Ben.

• An exhibition at Portcullis House, a parliamentary office complex which was opened on September 19, with lots of photos on the display.

• To mark the anniversary, Little Ben, a 30ft replica of the clock tower near Victoria station, has been given its own equally loud bongs to chime every hour between 7am and 7pm.

• A piece of music based on the Oranges and Lemons nursery rhyme has been recorded for the anniversary using chimes from 200 bells from the 17 London churches named in the full version of the rhyme.

• Children got a chance to explore Big Ben in a year-long project marking the bell’s 150th anniversary. A group of children climbed the belfry to watch Big Ben in action and produce a book, DVD and website on the subject.

• During the anniversary year the free hour-long tour was available only for UK residents who needed to put in a request to their local MP.

Lighting and sound specialists of Sound2light Productions performed the first ever moving video projection on to the clock tower of Big Ben to celebrate 150 years since the bell first chimed. The event was a great success, and brought a wealth of publicity and interest for the Anniversary Programme. A giant animation was watched all over the world.

The Symbol of the UK

The clock has become a symbol of the United Kingdom and London, particularly in the visual media. When a television or film-maker wishes to indicate Britain, a popular way to do so is to show an image of the Clock Tower, often with a red double-decker bus or black cab in the foreground. The sound of the clock chiming has also been used this way in audio media.

A survey of 2,000 people found that the tower was the most popular landmark in the United Kingdom. Mike McCann, who carries the title of Keeper of the Great Clock, said: “After 150 years, Big Ben still holds a special place in the hearts of Londoners and the world as a magnificent example of engineering and building genius.”

The Clock Tower is a focus of the start of the year. Londoners who live an appropriate distance from the Clock Tower and Big Ben can hear the bell strike on New Year’s Eve. Similarly, on Remembrance Day, the chimes of Big Ben are broadcast to mark the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and the start of two minutes’ silence.

ITN’s News at Ten opening sequence features an image of the Clock Tower with the sound of Big Ben’s chimes punctuating the announcement of the news headlines, and has done so on and off for the last 41 years.

You can find a lot of Little Bens as smaller replicas of the Clock Tower all over England. One of them is near Victoria station in London.

Recent photos of the Big Ben Clock Tower often show the London Eye Millennium Wheel in the background; a nearby attraction that is also worth visiting. Big Ben has and continues to stand tall as a powerful British icon and place for celebration.

Big Ben’s Time Line

August 6th, 1856

The first “Big Ben” was cast at Warners & Sons of Norton near Stockton-on-Tees. The bell was originally to be called “Royal Victoria”.

October 20th

The second Big Ben was raised to the belfry, 201 feet from the ground.

May 31st, 1859

The Great Clock first started keeping time.

July 11th, 1859

Big Ben first struck time with the Great Clock.

December 31st, 1923

BBC Radio first broadcast Big Ben’s chimes to the United Kingdom.

December 25th, 1932

Big Ben’s chimes were broadcast internationally for the first time by the Empire Service (later the World Service) as part of King George V’s Christmas broadcast.

September 1st, 1939

From this date in 1939 until April 1945, the clock faces were unlit to comply with blackout regulations during the Second World War.

November 10th, 1940

The “Silent Minute or Big Ben Minute” was inaugurated on this date. Each night, before the 9pm BBC radio news, people were encouraged to remember those away fighting in the Second World War, for the silent minute it took to broadcast Big Ben chimes.

April 30th, 1945

The clock faces were re-illuminated. The faces had been unlit since 1939 to comply with wartime blackout regulations.

August 10th, 1976

On this date in 1976 in the middle of the night, a mechanical failure caused serious damage to the Great Clock. The pendulum weights fell out of control down the shaft and the clock mechanism exploded. Big Ben was silenced for nearly nine months while repairs were carried out.

November 8th, 2009

Remembrance Sunday was on this date in 2009. The chimes of Big Ben signified the start of the two minute silence at the Cenotaph and across the United Kingdom.

Compiled by Galina Kuznetsova ,
School No. 88, Yaroslavl