Who wouldn’t recognise Big Ben on a visit to London or on a picture postcard? It is, in fact, the nickname given to both the clock and the clock tower. The clock tower was renamed to mark Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee and became Elizabeth Tower in 2012. It was completed in 1859 from a design by Augustus Pugin and at the time was the largest chiming clock in the world. It is 315 feet (96 metres) tall with a climb of 334 steps to the belfry. The dials are 23 feet (7 metres) in diameter. Big Ben is only one of five bells and weighs 13.7 tons. Its origin is open to question. It may have been named after Sir Benjamin Hall who managed its installation or the champion boxer of the time, Benjamin Caunt. It chimes every 15 minutes and on the hour. It is, of course an icon and one of the most prominent symbols of the UK.
The designer, Pugin, wanted to keep the clock in line with his usual architecture, his celebrated Gothic Revival style. It is made principally of brick with sand-coloured limestone cladding. Some of the tower’s height is framed cast iron.
Despite being a famous tourist attraction, the interior is not open to visitors, although some UK residents can access it on applying to their local MP well in advance. Just as well for some as there is no lift to the belfry tower. Not many people know that the tower leans slightly to the north-west by about 23 centimetres (9 inches). When the Jubilee line was completed, this lean increased to 20 inches and owing to thermal effects, this oscillates annually by several millimetres east to west. Fortunately, the lean will not become a real problem for several thousand years.
The clock dials were also designed by Augustine Pugin. They are set in an iron frame which is 23 feet (7 metres) in diameter and supports 312 opal glass pieces, some of which can be removed for inspection of the clock hands. At the base of each dial is a Latin inscription: DOMINE SALVAM FAC REGINAM NOSTRAM VICTORIAM PRIMAM, which means: ‘O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First’.
The clock’s reliability is notorious. On top of the pendulum is a small pile of old pennies to adjust the time of the clock. Adding one slightly lifts the position of the pendulum’s centre of mass, so reducing the effective length and increasing the rate of swing. Just by adding or removing a penny will change the clock’s speed by 0.4 seconds per day. The clock is wound up by hand and takes one and a half hours three times a week.
Interesting clock events
1916: The bells were silenced and clock faces blacked out to avoid attacks from German Zeppelins.
June 1941: The clock stopped for 12 hours when a workman repairing air-raid damage dropped a hammer into the workings.
1949: It slowed by 4 minutes when a flock of starlings perched on the minute hand.
January 1955: The clock stopped at 3.24 a.m. because icy snow formed on the north and east dials so small electric heaters were placed just inside thus avoiding any future repetition.
30 January 1965: The bells were silenced during Winston Churchill’s funeral.
5 August 1976: The first major breakdown.
27 May 2005: The clock stopped due to hot weather (31.8°C).
17 April 2013: The bells were silenced as a sign of respect during Margaret Thatcher’s funeral.
21 August 2017: The start of 4-yearly maintenance work during which repair work and improvements will be made to the clock tower and the clock mechanism. The bells will still chime for New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Day, however.
Big Ben still has many years of ringing left and will probably remain standing well after much of the present skyline has disappeared or been modified… only time will tell!!!
Happy English learning!!