OF THE FAMOUS CLOCK
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.
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.
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.
BEN, LONDON, ENGLAND JUNE 2004
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.
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.
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
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
JOHN TRICKI of THWAITES & REED
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.
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.
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.
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.
clock tower is 316ft high.
light above the clock is lit while the Commons is
clock mechanism, alone, weights about 5 tons.
figures on the clock face are about 2 feet long, the
minute spaces are 1 ft. square.
copper minute hands are14 ft. Long.
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.
known as The Palace of Westminster, The Houses of
Parliament incorporates The House of Commons (destroyed
in WW2, rebuilt 1950), The House of Lords &
You can visit the Houses of Parliament to watch
proceedings from the public gallery. Call 020 7219 4272
- the company which maintains Big Ben
- the bell foundry where the Big Ben
bell was cast
- The company which provides NDT services
for the clock - Read
about their work on the clock
- The company which provided the lighting system for the
dials - Read
their article about their installation
about how they manufactured a special chain for Big Ben
about their work for Big Ben after the accident in 1976
sites providing information about Big Ben
McKay's Web Site
- Provides a very detailed history
of Big Ben
about Big Ben
their interview with one of the clockmakers who maintain
of Big Ben
- This shareware program simulates Big
Ben by playing appropriate recordings of the bells at
the hours and quarters
view of Big Ben camvista.com
their live cam
Reality view of Big Ben
London's view of Big Ben
information about how clocks work
the Pendulum Clock page
information about turret clocks
McKay's Web Site
and Printed Media
articles in Horological Journal, publication of
the British Horological
articles in Antiquarian Horology, publication of
Rock Desert, Nevada
Utah - History
- West Pier
York - Au
- Central America
- S. America
- Sri Lanka
Isle of Wight
Beach - Florida USA
- The City
- Tower Bridge
- Central America
Sands - Carmarthen
Moresby - PNG
Said - Egypt
Lake City - Utah
Lanka - Links
- Lesser Antilles
- United Arab Emirates
taste for adventure capitalists
Cola - a healthier alternative