May 31, 1859: Big Ben goes on line. A great number of people believe Big Ben, at the Palace of Westminster in London, is the name of the huge clock face or the tower itself. While the tower is the largest four-faced chiming clock tower in the world, and the third tallest free-standing clock tower, the name Big Ben actually refers to the largest bell in the tower. The first tower was build in 1288. The present tower was built using Charles Barry’s design for the new palace after the older palace was destroyed in a fire on October 16, 1834. Barry left the designing of the tower to Augustus Pugin.
The clock faces are set into iron frames measuring 23 feet in diameter. They each have 312 pieces of opal glass, resembling a stained-glass window, but all in white. This allows for some of the pieces of glass to be removed so the clock’s hands can be inspected. The clock itself is extremely reliable. The designers of the clock were Edmund Beckett Denison and George Airy. The construction was left to clockmaker Edward John Dent who died in 1853, leaving his stepson, Frederick Dent, to finish. The building of the tower and clock left enough time for Denison to come up with a second plan, making the clock far more accurate.
The official name for the largest bell is the Great Bell, however it is known colloquially as Big Ben, in honor of Benjamin Hall (or perhaps Benjamin Caunt). Hall’s name is inscribed on the bell. The original bell was cast on August 6, 1856 and weighed 16 tons. The tower wasn’t ready and so the bell was mounted in New Palace Yard moved there by a trolley drawn by sixteen horses. The bell cracked and was beyond repair. A second bell was cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and weighed 13.5 tons. The bell is seven feet, two inches high and eight feet, ten inches in diameter. The hammer weighs 440 pounds.
The largest bell is part of a set of five bells. Each bell strikes a different note. Big Ben is the musical note E, the first quarter bell is G sharp, the next is F sharp, the third is E, and the last is B. It took 18 hours to move the great bell 200 feet up the tower. The great clock began working on this day, the Great Bell was struck on July 11 and the quarter bells were added September 7. The Great Bell again cracked in September because the hammer was twice the recommended weight. It was out of commission for three years while fixed. It was patched and to this day, has a bit of an odd sound.
I’m learning English at the moment. I can say ‘Big Ben’, ‘Hello Rodney’, ‘Tower Bridge’ and ‘Loo’. – Cher
Through the magic of motion pictures, someone who’s never left Peoria knows the softness of a Paris spring, the color of a Nile sunset, the sorts of vegetation one will find along the upper Amazon and that Big Ben has not yet gone digital. – Vincent Canby
My cousin’s gay, he went to London only to find out that Big Ben was a clock. – Rodney Dangerfield
Clock watchers never seem to be having a good time. – James Cash Penney
Also on this day: