The Big Ben is the name by which the clock bell of the famous tower clock of London is known. On May 31, 1859, the Big Ben rang out over the Houses of Parliament in Westminster for the first time. Located at the top of the St. Stephen’s Tower, towering at a height of about 320 feet, the Big Ben is perhaps London’s most iconic structure and a symbolic representation of the city across the world.
On October 16, 1834, a catastrophic fire had destroyed the seat of the British parliament, the Palace of Westminster. The idea of the Big Ben came about as a prominent feature of the new design for the Palace of Westminster. Sir George Airy, the British royal astronomer, envisioned a tower with a clock which would be used for reference across the city of London. To fashion out exceptionally accurate time mechanism (“correct to within one second per day”), Sir Airy wanted the tower clock to be checked twice a day against the time of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Most of the city clock-makers found this too much of a challenge. Edmund Beckett Denison, a well-known lawyer, who was also renowned for his expertise in clock making and horology agreed to assist Sir Airy in this venture.
E.J. Dent & Co., eminent watchmakers, were enlisted to implement the design created by Beckett Denison. Edward John dent and later his stepson Frederick Dent worked on the clock and work was completed in 1854. Architect Charles Barry also neared completion of work on the clock tower in 1859.
The clock bell was required to be cast twice. The first bell weighed 16 tons and was cast by John Warner and Sons in 1856. The bell was then hung in the Palace Yard to await completion of the tower. The bell began to crack. In 1858, the bell was recast in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. George Mears, the master bell-founder and owner of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry undertook the casting himself. This new bell weighed about 13.5 ton but in July 1859 this bell started to crack as well. This time, however, the crack was repaired and a lighter hammer was added.
Transportation of this massive bell posed the next big problem. The bell was dragged through by 16 horses, with onlookers crowding around for a closer look. The bell was soon installed and Big Ben first struck its chimes on May 31, 1859.
Soon after, within a couple of months, the bell cracked under the weight of the heavy striker designed by Denison. The next three years were spent in repairing the clock, adding a light striker, and restoring the bell. The bell’s crack was never mended completely but the hammer was designed to strike a different surface.
It is believed that the Big Ben was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, the London commissioner of works, at the time it was built. Others believe that the bell was named after Benjamin Caunt, the famous heavyweight boxer in a jocund reference to the fact that the bell was the largest bell of its times. While initially, the name “Big Ben” only referred to the bell, later it came to become a popular reference to the clock and the tower as well.
Even after the infamous bombing of the chamber of the House of Commons during World War II, St. Stephen’s Tower, which housed the Big Ben, remained untouched. Known for its accurate timekeeping, the clock grew in repute. St Stephen’s Tower or Clock Tower is now officially known as the Elizabeth Tower. It was renamed to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II and is the third-tallest clock tower in the world.
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