When most people think of Big Ben, they think of the clock tower there at the Houses of Parliament. But the thing is, that’s *not* Big Ben. Big Ben is actually a nickname that refers to the Great Bell within the tower itself. Officially, the tower is referred to as Elizabeth Tower, connected to the Palace of Westminster. So what are some of the interesting facts about a bell, you ask? Well, read on.
A 2008 survey of 2,000 people found that Big Ben was the UK’s most popular tourist attraction.
Big Ben’s Name
The bell itself is officially called the “Great Bell”, but gets its nickname from Sir Benjamin Hall, who became the first Commissioner of Public Works in 1855 and oversaw the later stages of the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament. The previous Palace of Westminster had burned down as a result of the Great Fire of 1834. The Great Bell was cast in 1858 and has Sir Hall’s name inscribed upon it. The “big” part comes from the fact that the bell weighs 16 tons (or 13.4 tonnes) and is about 7 feet tall.
The Bells! The Bells!
Big Ben chimes every fifteen minutes and can be heard from as far away as five miles.
Do You Have the Time?
The diameter of each of the clock’s dials is 23 feet. The hour hands are 9 feet long, the minute hands are 14 feet, and the numerals are 2 feet. Each clock face has an inscription in Latin in gold that reads “DOMINE SALVAM FAC REGINAM NOSTRAM VICTORIAM PRIMAM” or “Oh Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First”. Each clock face contains 312 panes of glass, making a total of 1,248 pieces of glass.
For the Fallen
On Remembrance Day every year, the bells broadcast to mark the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, when the armistice that ended World War I took effect.
The tower had some problems during construction. The start of construction was marked with delivery delays, budget issues, and bureaucracy (believe it or not). The tower then proved too small for the mechanical clock and the bell broke the day after it was tested. Add to that, the minute hand had to be replaced twice when it proved too heavy to actually move.
Designed by an Attorney
The clock mechanism itself was designed by Edmund Beckett Denison, who was not actually a clockmaker, but a lawyer. Edward Dent had started the initial design, but Denison ended up making multiple modifications to it, so many that he is actually credited as the chief designer. Plus, in a move that would make other attorneys scratch their heads, Denison chose not to patent his modifications, meaning that any clock designer would be free to use them.
The first radio broadcast of Big Ben’s chimes was to ring in the new year of 1924. Naturally, it rings in the new year every year for London.
Pennies on the Pendulum
Every year the clock is adjusted using an old English penny. If the clock is running fast, a penny is added to the pendulum. If the clock is running slow, a penny is removed from the pendulum. The clock gains 2/5 of a second a day from each penny added.
Keeping It Clean
The clock faces are cleaned every 5 years using little more than soap and water. A group of window washers rappels down the belfry down to the faces and have to be careful not to break the glass panes or lean on the hands.
What’s in a Name?
Everyone pretty much calls the tower and the clock Big Ben. But it’s actually the big bell inside that’s named Big Ben. The tower used to be known simply as the “Clock Tower” until 2012 when it was renamed Elizabeth Tower in honor of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Despite Big Ben being the bell, everyone will probably continue to call the whole thing Big Ben until the end of time.