Big Ben in London
Big Ben is the nickname for the great bell of the clock at the north end of the Palace of Westminster in London, and is generally extended to refer to the clock or the clock tower as well. It is the largest four-faced chiming clock and the third-tallest free-standing clock tower in the world. It celebrated its 150th anniversary on 31 May 2009, during which celebratory events took place.
The bottom 61 m of the Clock Tower's structure consists of brickwork with sand coloured Anston limestone cladding. The remainder of the tower's height is a framed spire of cast iron. The tower is founded on a 15 m square raft, made of 3 m thick concrete, at a depth of 4 m below ground level. The four clock dials are 55 m above ground. The interior volume of the tower is 4,650 cubic metres (164,200 cubic feet).
Despite being one of the world's most famous tourist attractions, the interior of the tower is not open to overseas visitors, though United Kingdom residents are able to arrange tours (well in advance) through their Member of Parliament. However, the tower has no lift, so those escorted must climb the 334 limestone stairs to the top.
On 10 May 1941, a German bombing raid damaged two of the clock's dials and sections of the tower's stepped roof and destroyed the House of Commons chamber. Architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott designed a new five-floor block. Two floors are occupied by the current chamber which was used for the first time on 26 October 1950. Despite the heavy bombing the clock ran accurately and chimed throughout the Blitz.
The Big Ben clock tower has been tilting as a result of the excavation of tunnels near Westminster. The tower has tilted an additional 0.9 mm each year since 2003, and the tilt can now be seen by the naked eye.
Malfunctions, breakdowns, and other outages
- 1916: for two years during World War I, the bells were silenced and the clock face darkened at night to prevent attack by German Zeppelins. However, another theory for the origin of the name is that the bell may have been named after a contemporary heavyweight boxer Benjamin Caunt. It is thought that the bell was originally to be called Victoria or Royal Victoria in honour of Queen Victoria, but that an MP suggested the nickname during a Parliamentary debate; the comment is not recorded in Hansard.
Since the tower was not yet finished, the bell was mounted in New Palace Yard. Cast in 1856, the first bell was transported to the tower on a trolley drawn by sixteen horses, with crowds cheering its progress. Unfortunately, it cracked beyond repair while being tested and a replacement had to be made. The bell was recast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry as a 13.76-tonne (13½ ton) bell. Now Big Ben is often used, by extension, to refer to the clock, the tower and the bell collectively, although the nickname is not universally accepted as referring to the clock and tower. Some authors of works about the tower, clock and bell sidestep the issue by using the words Big Ben first in the title, then going on to clarify that the subject of the book is the clock and tower as well as the bell.
Significance in popular culture
The clock has become a symbol of the United Kingdom and London, particularly in the visual media. When a television or film-maker wishes to indicate a generic location in Britain, a popular way to do so is to show an image of the Clock Tower, often with a red double-decker bus or black cab in the foreground. The sound of the clock chiming has also been used this way in audio media, but as the Westminster Quarters are heard from other clocks and other devices, the unique nature of this sound has been considerably diluted.
The Clock Tower is a focus of New Year celebrations in the United Kingdom, with radio and TV stations tuning to its chimes to welcome the start of the year. Similarly, on Remembrance Day, the chimes of Big Ben are broadcast to mark the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and the start of two minutes' silence.
ITN's News at Ten opening sequence features an image of the Clock Tower with the sound of Big Ben's chimes punctuating the announcement of the news headlines, and has done so on and off for the last 41 years. The Big Ben chimes (known within ITN as "The Bongs") continue to be used during the headlines and all ITV News bulletins use a graphic based on the Westminster clock dial. Big Ben can also be heard striking the hour before some news bulletins on BBC Radio 4 (6 pm and midnight, plus 10 pm on Sundays) and the BBC World Service, a practice that began on 31 December 1923. The sound of the chimes are sent in real time from a microphone permanently installed in the tower and connected by line to Broadcasting House.
Londoners who live an appropriate distance from the Clock Tower and Big Ben can, by means of listening to the chimes both live and on the radio or television, hear the bell strike thirteen times on New Year's Eve. This is possible due to what amounts to an offset between live and electronically transmitted chimes since the speed of sound is a lot slower than the speed of radio waves. Guests are invited to count the chimes aloud as the radio is gradually turned down.
The Clock Tower has appeared in many films, most notably in the 1978 version of The Thirty Nine Steps, in which the hero Richard Hannay attempted to halt the clock's progress (to prevent a linked bomb detonating) by hanging from the minute hand of its western dial. In the fourth James Bond film Thunderball a mistaken extra strike of Big Ben on the hour is designated by criminal organisation SPECTRE to be the signal that the British Government has acceded to its nuclear extortion demands. The gag phrase "Big Ben! Parliament!" is repeated for comic effect by Chevy Chase in National Lampoon's European Vacation as the depicted family remains stuck on the Lambeth Bridge Roundabout. It was also used in the filming of Shanghai Knights starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson, and was depicted as being partially destroyed in the Doctor Who episode "Aliens of London". An animated version of the clock and its inner workings were also used as the setting for the climactic final battle between Basil of Baker Street and his nemesis Ratigan in the Walt Disney animated film The Great Mouse Detective as well as Peter Pan where Peter lands on the clock before they head to Neverland. It is shown being destroyed by a UFO in the film Mars Attacks!, by a prehistoric creature in Gorgo, and by a lightning bolt in the film The Avengers. It is destroyed on purpose and quite graphically in the movie V for Vendetta and is flooded in the film Flood. In Reign of Fire, it is destroyed by dragons. The apparent "thirteen chimes" detailed above was also a major plot device in the Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons episode, "Big Ben Strikes Again".
During the 2010 General Election the results of the national exit poll were projected onto the face of Big Ben.
A survey of 2,000 people found that the tower was the most popular landmark in the United Kingdom.
Big Ben was polled as the Most Iconic London Film Location.
- Victoria Tower
- Official website
- Whitechapel Bell Foundry on Big Ben
- UK parliament's interior photos of Big Ben and the Clock Tower
- – A technical paper from Cambridge University
- Big Ben's old clapper as forged in Houghton-le-Spring, Co Durham