Have you ever seen the Clock Tower?
Most likely if you asked anyone in the street that question, they’d all say ‘No!’.
But what if you changed that question a bit? What if you asked them if they’d seen “Big Ben”?
Aaah. Now we’re getting somewhere. “Sure!” some people would say, “We went to look at it when were in London, we got some great snapshots of it from the London Eye across the Thames!”, or perhaps “yeah, but I’ve only seen photos of it on the internet”.
In most cases, the answers to both those questions are false.
The clock-tower of the Palace of Westminster, better-known as ‘Big Ben’, is without a doubt, the most famous clock-tower in the world. Millions of people go to see it each year and there are probably billions of photos and drawings and paintings of it all over the internet and in millions of books on London and England all over the world. But how much of what we know about ‘Big Ben’ is actually real? What really is what when it comes to this most famous of British landmarks and how did it get its name, anyway?
What’s in a Name?
If you asked anyone in the world to show you a picture of ‘Big Ben’, you’d probably have something like this shoved in your face:
“That’s Big Ben!” they’d say, proudly, firmly or with a hint of sarcasm at your apparent stupidity of world architecture and history.
…actually, it’s not ‘Big Ben’ at all.
The most famous clock-tower in the world, outside the Palace of Westminster in London, England, has been named ‘Big Ben’ for over 150 years, ever since the pendulum first started swinging in the late 1850s. But this isn’t actually the clock-tower’s name! It never was! It wasn’t then, it wasn’t fifty years ago, and it still isn’t now.
The clock itself is actually called the Great Clock of Westminster. Sorry.
‘Big Ben’ is actually the name of the bell inside the tower that famously strikes the hours, 156 times a day, 1092 times a week, 56,784 times a year! This is Big Ben, here:
Although officially called the Great Bell of Westminster, Big Ben has held its nickname ever since it was installed in the clock-tower over 150 years ago. It’s a name well-given, for the Great Bell weighs a stone-crushing, Jenny-Craig-Fainting 13.8 tons! (That’s an imperial short ton, folks, 2000lbs). But where did the name come from? It’s generally believed that the bell was named after the man who oversaw its installation, Sir Benjamin Hall, 1st Baronet of Llanover, who despite his position as President of the Board of Health, died at the age of 64 in 1867!
Big Ben is one of the most unique bells in the world. Thanks to two cracks in the lip, the bell’s chiming has always been slightly off. Since the first ‘Big Ben’ bell was severely damaged by a crack caused by the chiming hammer, the engineers who built the clock-tower were not about to waste money in trying to make a THIRD bell if the second one (which is the current bell) was cracked as well. They just put up with it…as has the rest of the world…ever since! The bell was originally meant to strike a low ‘E’ note, but the two cracks have always caused the bell to sound slightly off, a defect that has never been repaired.
The Westminster Quarters
The Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster has long been famous for the distinctive pattern of chimes which the bells in the tower emit, every fifteen minutes. They are collectively known as the ‘Westminster Quarters’ and they are provided courtesy of the clock tower’s four other bells, besides Big Ben: the four quarter bells, as they’re called. These are tuned respectively, (from highest to lowest in tone), to: G#, F#, E and B. Every fifteen minutes, at 15 past, half-past and 45 minutes past the hour, as well as at the hour itself, these four bells sound out a distinctive pattern of chimes which are famous the world-over. On the hour, the chimes always sound a few seconds beforehand, so that when Big Ben sounds the hour, it does exactly on the dot.
This illustration from an 1858 newspaper shows Big Ben and the four quarter-bells in place, shortly before the clock started official timekeeping duties in early 1859
Putting a Penny On
How many of us have ever heard of the expression, to ‘put a penny on’? How many of us know what it means?
To ‘put a penny on’ means to slow something down. It’s believed that the Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster gave birth to this phrase when the clock started running in 1859. The mechanism of the clock in the tower is regulated by the swinging of a pendulum…just like that elegant, longcase striking-clock you have at grandpa’s house. Adding or subtracting old, imperial penny-coins from the pre-decimal British currency-system speeds up or slows down the pendulum’s swing and the arc of the swing. The men responsible for maintaining the clock’s accuracy added or removed pennies from the top of the pendulum-shaft to regulate its movement and therefore, the clock’s timekeeping…something that they still do today!
On the right in this photo, is the timekeeping log of the clocktower, where variations in timekeeping, pennies used as well as air-pressure and other weather conditions, are noted down. The little rectangular tin on the left contains the old-time pennies which are still used today, to regulate the pendulum’s swing
Literally ‘putting a penny on’! These pennies, stacked and arranged on the top of the Great Clock’s pendulum help regulate its swing and therefore, keep accurate time. It is where the expression gets its name
Running like Clockwork
These days, most people would scoff at folks who still tell time with mechanical timepieces, whether they be mechanical wristwatches, wind-up clocks, pendulum-clocks, pocket watches (I have two of these!) or great, hulking mechanical clock-towers! But believe it or not, properly maintained and regulated, mechanical timepieces can keep just as accurate time as all our newfangled electronic, quartz, battery-powered clocks and watches today! Big Ben is no exception.
The clock’s mechanism, installed in the mid 1850s, still runs perfectly today. It’s attended to by a group of men who wind the clock…that’s right…WIND THE CLOCK, like grandpa winds up his Hamilton…three times a week, and who regulate the clock’s accuracy every few days. The mechanism of the Great Clock is regulated by the pendulum, which swings back and forth, just like the pendulum inside any old regular pendulum-clock.
Despite ticking away what must, by now, be millions of seconds for the past 151 years, Big Ben has a remarkable service record: In all its over-a-century of operation, it has only been out of action a handful of times and its accuracy is such that you can quite literally…set your watch to it. Here’s a few fun facts about the Great Clock that you may or may not know about…
- Big Ben’s four faces were originally lit up at night by gaslight! It was the responsibility of one of the clock-tower’s attendants to go around with a taper and light the gaslights every night and extinguish them every morning. He also had to stay up all night to ensure that none of the gaslights burnt out!
- From 1916-1918, Big Ben joined the London Blackout during WWI. Its chimes were silenced and the lights which lit up the clock’s four, massive dials, were all turned off, to prevent attacking German zepplins from using the clock-tower’s lights as a reference-point to bomb important buildings in London’s business-district.
- Just like in WWI, during the Second World War, the lights on the clock-tower’s dials were all switched off to prevent the German luftwaffe bombers from using them as a light-reference on their night bombing-runs. The bells, however, continued to chime the quarters and hours throughout the duration of the War.
- Despite turning off the lights to confuse the Germans, the clock-tower was nonetheless severely damaged during WWII. On the 10th of May, 1941, German bomber-planes flying over London scored a direct hit on the Palace of Westminster. The Commons Chamber in the Houses of Parliament was destroyed by a falling bomb. Another bomb struck the roof of the Clock Tower, blowing out two of the clock’s famous white dials and destroying a significant portion of the tower’s roof. Despite this damage, the clock never stopped ticking and its timekeeping remained perfect throughout the War.
- December 31st, 1962. Due to the frigid winter weather, Big Ben chimed in the New Year ten minutes late. The ice and snow which had formed around the clock-tower had interfered with the mechanism’s usually flawless timekeeping, causing the bells to chime out midnight at 12:10am!
- 5th August, 1976. The clock’s mechanism suffered a major breakdown for the first and only time in its 100+ years of operation.
- May & October, 2005. The clock’s mechanism was stopped during these months, once due to high temperatures, and once for general servicing.
- June 2006, August 2007. The clock underwent maintenance work which stopped it running for several weeks.
In 2009, the Great Clock of the Palace of Westminster celebrated its 150th anniversary. I’m sure it’ll still be ticking away the seconds, minutes, hours and days for years more to come, when it rings in its 200th anniversary in 2059.