One of the great Iconic buildings of the world is Big Ben. A symbol of Englishness and of democracy whose bell chimes are still broadcast live to announce BBC Radio 4 news programs. The Clock Tower is commonly known as Big Ben but that is actually the name of the great bell that chimes the hour.
In 1834 a devastating fire swept through the Palace of Westminster all but destroying it. Sir Charles Barry won the commission to rebuild the Palace in a Neo-Gothic style. His original designs did not feature the Clock Tower which Barry added to the plans in 1836 which was designed by Augustus Pugin.
The foundation stone of the Clock Tower was laid on 28 September 1843. The third tallest free standing clock tower in the world at 61 meters high, the Tower is clad with Anston Limestone from Yorkshire. It took 6 years to build the Clock Tower which was completed in 1859, five years behind schedule.
The Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy set extremely high standards for the clock including that it should be accurate to within 1 second every hour. Airy appointed a Barrister and gifted amateur clock maker Edmund Dennison to help him work on the clock design. In February 1852 Edward John Dent was appointed to build the clock to a design by Dennison. When Dent died in 1853 his stepson, Frederick, took over the construction and it was finished in 1854. Denison made refinements to the clock including a revolutionary Double Three-legged Gravity Escarpment which meant the clocks 3.9m long pendulum was installed in an enclosed box. Fine adjustments to the pendulum are done by adding or subtracting old penny coins to the top of the pendulum. The coins change the mass of the pendulum and one coin will change the clocks speed by 0.4 seconds a day.
When the clock was installed in April 1859 it would not work properly because the cast iron minute hands were too heavy. These were replaced with lighter copper hands and the clock started successfully keeping time on 31 May 1859.
There are 2 theories why the Clock Towers bell was named "Big Ben. It was either named after Sir Benjamin Hall, who first commissioned the bell and whose name is inscribed on it, or after Benjamin Caunt, a champion heavyweight boxer of the period. Either way Big Ben was cast at Warners foundry near Stockton-on-Tees in August 1856. On its delivery by sea to London it was hung in the Westminster Palace yard and tested and a few days later the bell cracked. No-one took responsibility the foundry blaming the designer Dennison and visa versa. A new bell was cast by George Mears at his Whitechapel foundry and on October 1858 it took 30 hours to winch the new bell into the Clock Tower belfry. It first rang out on 11 July 1895 but 2 months later the bell cracked again.
The bell lay silent for four years while experts looked for a solution. In 1863 the bell was turned a quarter turn, a lighter hammer was installed and a square was cut out of the bells rim to stop the split spreading. Big Ben has rung out ever since with a split in it which gives it its characteristic sound. The total cost of installing the bell and clock reached £22,000, a small price for an iconic clock that every tourist to London has to see and hear and whose Tower is instantly recognized around the world.
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