In Westminster, London at the end of the Houses of Parliament, the Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster (or ‘Big Ben’ as it is colloquially named) is one of the most recognizable structures in the world.
Operational by 1859, the history of the Clock Tower’s construction, specifically the “Big Ben” bell that many around the world use as the tower’s namesake, has become one of the UK’s most famous landmarks.
After the original Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire in 1834, British architect Charles Barry was commissioned to redesign a new palace. He collaborated with Augustus Pugin on the design of the actual clock tower, and this particular Clock Tower ended up being Pugin’s final design shortly before his descent into madness and eventual death. Using the Gothic Revival style that Pugin made famous with similar designs, the first 61 meters of structure is stone, leaving the remaining 35 meters of the tower a framed cat iron spire. The four clock faces sit at 55 meters above ground, and the Tower has a total interior volume of 4,650 cubic meters.
clock mechanism is famously reliable, thanks to designer, and amateur horologist Edmund Beckett Denison (aka Lord Grimthorpe). Denison worked together with clockmaker Edward John Dent on the main clock mechanism, and completed work in 1854 before the actual tower had been finished. Using the extra time, Denison invented a new type of 3-legged gravity escapement for the pendulum and clock, providing superior separation and unrivaled accuracy in time-keeping. The clock Denison built has historically kept the time even in the face of attacks such as the Blitz by Nazi Germany in 1940-41 that saw daily bombings in London.
The Great Bell, also known as the ‘Big Ben’ bell, is the largest bell in the Clock Tower and often mistaken for the name of the Tower itself. Originally a 16-ton hour bell, the first Great Bell was mounted in New Palace Yard to allow time for the Clock Tower’s construction. During this time, the original bell cracked while using the striking hammer, and had to be recast. This new bell was cast in 1858, now a 14-ton bell that chimed in A (the musical note), and would ultimately become the ‘Big Ben’ bell. However in 1859, Big Ben also cracked after two months of use in hourly chimes. After deliberation by officials, Big Ben was affixed with a smaller hammer and rotated to avoid hitting the crack.
Holes were also drilled strategically to avoid the crack spreading to other areas, which resulted in a slightly off-key, distinctive chime. Along with Big Ben’s hourly chime, the belfry has four quarter-hour bells that play ‘Westminster Quarters’ (the recognizable chimes typically heard every quarter hour from any grandfather clock), and have helped make the Clock Tower one of the most easily identified landmarks not only by sight, but also by sound.