BIG BEN LONDON

 

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DESIGN OF THE FAMOUS CLOCK

 

During the night of the 16th October 1834 the old Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire.  Following the destruction of the buildings, a competition was launched for a design suitable for the new Palace. Charles Barry's design won when in 1844 Parliament decided that the new buildings of the Houses of Parliament should include a clock tower. The specifications for the clock were extremely high for that time. The first strike of the bell should be correct to one second to the hour.

 

The dials were to be thirty feet in diameter, the quarter chimes were to be struck on eight bells, and the hours were to be struck on a 14 ton bell.  Barry invited Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy, a clockmaker of reputation, to submit a design and price for constructing such a clock.  Subsequently, the Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy, was appointed as referee for the new clock and produced a specification in 1846. Tenders were invited and were received from three makers, Dent, Vulliamy and Whitehurst.

 

In 1849 the famous horologist, Edmund Beckett Denison (later Lord Grimthorpe) was appointed co-referee with Airy. Denison was in agreement with Airy that Dent was the maker most capable of constructing the clock and they produced a revised specification and drawings, in respect of which Dent was requested to revise his estimate. In 1852 Dent was awarded the contract.

 

 

 

BIG BEN, LONDON, ENGLAND JUNE 2004

 

 

TEETHING TROUBLES

 

When it was discovered there was not enough room in the tower in which to fit the clock, it became necessary to re-design it.  This was because the architect refused to compromise on his design.  Edward Dent died in 1853, hence the clock mechanism was completed by his stepson in 1854 who later changed hi name to Frederick Dent.  It was during this time that Denison invented the three-legged gravity escapement, which allowed the clock to keep such accurate time.

 

Denison also became involved in the casting of the bells.  This contract was awarded to John Warner and Sons who cast the hour bell in 1856. The bell weighed about 16 tons, about two tons heavier than intended.  Accordingly, other components such as the ball hammer had to be increased in size from 4 to 6 cwt.  Although, the bell cracked while being struck and had to be re-cast in 1858 by Gearge Mears of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.  This cast produced a bell weighing 13.5 tons, which remains in use today.  The name 'Big Ben' was first used for the original hour bell cast by Warners and attributed to Sir Benjamin Hall the first commissioner of works.

 

Later, when the five bells were fitted it proved impossible to install the clock in the clockroom beneath the belfry. Then the hands of the clock proved too heavy for the clock to be able to move them.  Fresh ones proved even heavier so Dents had to design some himself.  The minute hands by Dent and the hour hands from Charles Barry's second attempt were found to work and the chiming and hour striking became fully operational on the 7th of September 1859.  Unfortunately, then the hour bell cracked again, which led to Denison being sued for libel by Mears.  Finally, chemical testing of the bell metal proved Denison right.  Nevertheless, instead of recasting the bell, it was turned through 90 degrees and a lighter hammer installed.  In 1862 striking the hour commenced.

 

For the next 114 years the clock's operation went smoothly.  Big Ben soon gained a reputation for accuracy.  In 1906, the gas lighting of the dials was replaced by electric lighting.  Electric winding of the clock was introduced in 1912.  The mechanism was serviced in 1934 and 1956.  Please remember that it is the bell that is called Big Ben, not the tower.

 

 

 

CRAFTSMAN JOHN TRICKI of THWAITES & REED

 

 

THE BBC

 

The first radio broadcast of Big Ben by the BBC was at midnight on the 31st of December 1923.  This was to see in the new year. Shortly afterwards, a microphone was installation for regular broadcasts as a time signal. The broadcasting of the bells on the BBC World Service was particularly important during World War II.  The familiar chime became a source of hope to those fighting to defend Britain.

 

CALAMITY

 

In 1976 a completely unanticipated event occurred which almost caused the complete destruction of the clock. At 3:45am on the 5th of August 1976 as the clock started to chime, metal fatigue in the shaft connecting the chiming train to its fly fan caused the shaft to break. Without the retarding and braking effect of the fly, the chiming mechanism, propelled by the 1.25 ton weight in the shaft, increased its speed of rotation dramatically. This led to the total destruction of the chiming mechanism, with various components and fragments of others being scattered about the clockroom.  Some pieces of machinery were flung at the ceiling with sufficient force to penetrate to the room above. The cast iron frame was fractured and collapsed onto the winding motor below. The flying debris also caused damage to the going and striking trains.

It was necessary for the chiming train to be reconstructed from scratch. The magnitude of this task meant that other options, such as replacement with an electric motor, were considered. The reconstruction took almost one year to complete.

 

The sounds of Big Ben have traditionally been the focus of the entry of the New Year. In December 1999 they were of particular significance, marking the beginning of the new Millennium. The sounds of the chimes were relayed on television and radio broadcasts and to the crowd assembled in the Millennium Dome. For the first time also, cameras were located in the belfry so that viewers could see as well as hear the chimes and twelve o'clock being struck on the bells.

 

 

OTHER INFORMATION

 

The clock tower is 316ft high.

The light above the clock is lit while the Commons is sitting.

The clock mechanism, alone, weights about 5 tons. 

The figures on the clock face are about 2 feet long, the minute spaces are 1 ft. square.

The copper minute hands are14 ft. Long.

 

Big Ben is 9'-0" diameter, 7'-6" high, and weighing in at 13 tons 10 cwts 3 qtrs 15lbs (13,760 Kg)
Big Ben was cast on Saturday 10th April 1858, with the first chime rung in situ on 31st May 1859.
Big Ben cost UKP 2,401 for casting the bell (However this was offset to the sum of UKP 1,829 by the metal reclaimed from a previous bell so that the actual invoice submitted, on 28th May 1858, was for UKP 572.

 

Also known as The Palace of Westminster, The Houses of Parliament incorporates The House of Commons (destroyed in WW2, rebuilt 1950), The House of Lords & Westminster Hall.

You can visit the Houses of Parliament to watch proceedings from the public gallery. Call 020 7219 4272 for details.

 

 

 

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LINKS:

 

Thwaites and Reed - the company which maintains Big Ben

Whitechapel Bell Foundry - the bell foundry where the Big Ben bell was cast

AEA Technology - The company which provides NDT services for the clock - Read about their work on the clock

Philips - The company which provided the lighting system for the dials - Read their article about their installation

Renold Chain - Read about how they manufactured a special chain for Big Ben

National Physical Laboratory - Read about their work for Big Ben after the accident in 1976

 

Other sites providing information about Big Ben

Chris McKay's Web Site - Provides a very detailed history of Big Ben

Findarticles.com - Article about Big Ben

BBC News - Read their interview with one of the clockmakers who maintain Big Ben

 

Sounds of Big Ben

Big Ben Utility - This shareware program simulates Big Ben by playing appropriate recordings of the bells at the hours and quarters

Live view of Big Ben camvista.com - View their live cam

 

Virtual Reality view of Big Ben

VR London's view of Big Ben

For information about how clocks work

howstuffworks.com - Visit the Pendulum Clock page

For information about turret clocks

Chris McKay's Web Site

 

Books and Printed Media

Various articles in Horological Journal, publication of the British Horological Institute

Various articles in Antiquarian Horology, publication of the Antiquarian Horological Society

 

 

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