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A Brief Overview of the History of the Big Ben

History of Big Ben
A huge clock tower, always accurate, the ideal timekeeper come what may, is the Big Ben of London. While its facts and statistics (how tall it is, how many chimes..) are always discussed, scroll below for a look at how this English landmark, monument and essential London building was built.
Rave Uno
Last Updated: Jul 28, 2017
When one thinks of Great Britain or England, along with the Millennium Dome, the Thames River and the Royal Family, Big Ben or the clock tower in the Palace of Westminster as it is formally known, also comes to mind. The familiar looming shadow of the great clock, its hourly and quarterly chimes echoing across London, all make up the great effect that this monument has on the British population and indeed its universal appeal. Even with cinema, showing a shot or a glimpse of this magnificent piece of architecture is enough to convey the essence and atmosphere of England. The actual title of "Big Ben" is not the clock tower itself but actually refers to the big clock bell, that produces the deep and sonorous chime. With the passage of time, that distinction blurred. But Rome wasn't built in a day and neither was Big Ben. Amongst the trivia about this British landmark, its building and creation is a story worth telling. Let's journey back to the mid 1800's, to the year of 1834, to learn about the making of the Big Ben.
History of the Big Ben
The Palace of Westminster had 2 clock towers, prior to Big Ben. The first tower was built during the time of King Edward I. It was replaced by a second tower in 1397, which was replaced by a sundial in 1707.
In 1834 on the 16th of October, the Palace of Westminster, the English House of Parliament was destroyed by fire. There was nothing left but rubble. Only Westminster Hall had managed to survive, albeit damaged severely.
The English Parliament decided to rebuild the Palace and instead of appointing a head architect directly, decided to hold a designing competition to pick and choose from various designs. The architect chosen was Charles Barry.
Charles Barry's winning design did not feature a clock tower but the Parliament pressurized him into changing his design to include a clock tower in 1836. His assistant Augustus Pugin was in charge of the clock tower's construction. Pugin was also the mastermind behind the Gothic arches and interiors of the Palace. Construction of the clock tower started in full scale in the year of 1843. Unlike normal constructions, the tower's interiors were constructed first, then the exterior was formed.
A clock tower needs a clock. While Barry had a vision of a large, 4 faced clock, he was not a clockmaker and neither was Pugin. Recognizing that this part of the construction was above their expertise, they hired Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy to create and handle the clock to go in the tower. This decision to directly appoint one clockmaker to make the most important part of the largest clock in the world (at that time), did not go down well with the clockmakers and artisans of London. They made their displeasure known very vocally and to handle such outrage, a central body or referee was appointed.
This was the Royal Astronomer, Sir George Airy, who decided to play very fair and expressed a specification, that whichever clockmaker would promise to meet, they would receive the commission of creating the clock.
This specification read: "The first stroke of the hour bell should register the time, correct to within one second per day, and furthermore that it should telegraph its performance twice a day to Greenwich Observatory, where a record would be kept".
Given the limited technology during that time period, this seemed impossible. But Airy was very adamant about this feature and accepted the request of Edward Dent in 1852, who agreed to somehow manufacture such an accurate and large clock.
Dent designed and created the clock using the concept of escapement, which remains the principal working factor behind any turret clock. While the clock creation seemed to be going well, an architectural issue cropped up: there was literally no space in the tower to fit the created clock. So, the clock's mechanism had to be modified, to make it fit within the tower's walls.
Edward Dent passed away in 1853, his stepson Frederick Dent continued to work on the clock and it was completed in 1854. But it still could not be fitted in the tower, since the tower was not complete. So, the clock was stored in Dent's clock works for five years till the tower was completed. During this time, tweaking and improvements were done with the clock such that a new mechanism was added. This mechanism, the "Double Three-legged Gravity Escapement", ensured complete accuracy irrespective of external hindrances, like wind pressure or temperature.
A clock needs to chime, likewise the clock tower needed bells to let everyone know what was the time. 1 big bell for the hour, 4 bells to chime at the quarter to an hour. The commission for designing the big bell went to Warners of Cripplegate, who built a massive sixteen ton bell in 1856. The tower was not ready yet, so the bell was mounted in the New Palace Yard and struck at time intervals for testing. All this testing ultimately cracked the bell in 1857!
Amidst all the finger pointing between the bell makers and the tower makers, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry approached the tower building committee and recast the bell in 1858. It was smaller and weighed just 13½ tons. It was taken to the tower in great ceremony, only to discover that the tower was still not prepared for it and was too narrow to take the bell up straight. The smart bell movers decided to lift it up sideways and pull it up to the belfry, this process took 30 hours. Finally in 1859, the clock tower, clock and bells were all fitted and working together.
Time for the naming of the bell. There are numerous theories as to its naming, one being that the bell is named after Benjamin Caunt, a popular bare-knuckle street boxer of that time. The other personality is Sir Benjamin Hall, who was the Commissioner of Works. At a meeting of Parliament, where the bell was the main topic of discussion, he gave a lengthy speech on the subject. Being a large, hefty fellow, a Parliament member suggested naming the huge bell after Sir Benjamin. The bell was named Big Ben, the name stuck and extended to the clock tower itself.
Disaster soon struck in October of 1859, when the bell cracked again. Once again finger-pointing began and lot of head scratching took place on how to fix the bell. You see, this time Big Ben was fixed in the tower, so to fix him, they had to remove him from the tower. This was impossible, as the tower was one size smaller to the actual bell. So, the entire tower would have to be demolished just to fix the bell.
For some months, endless debates reigned. But George Airy came to the rescue by demonstrating sharpness of the mind. He suggested that the bell should be turned by just a quarter, so that the clock hammer would strike a different location on the bell, not the cracked region. This operation resulted in the complete functioning of the clock in 1862. The original crack still remains on the Big Ben till this day.
Big Ben has remained steadfast and true through the passages of time. In 1916, the bells did not chime and the clock dial was darkened to prevent the Germans from attacking it, during the First World War. The same was repeated in 1939, to prevent the German Blitz in the World War II.
In 1976, the clock experienced a serious breakdown, where the chiming mechanism, subjected to years of wear and tear, broke down completely. The internal parts of the clock were damaged by the flying debris and a year of repairing took place. Other minor incidents involved replacing certain parts like putting in an electric motor and repairing the bell.
The history of Big Ben serves to remind us of how perseverance and setting high standards, are necessary when it comes to building any object of greatness.
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in London