1. The whole clock Big Ben of London is colloquially called “Big Ben,” but that’s actually only the name of its biggest bell.
2. How did it get that name? It isn’t clear. Some believe that the bell “Big Ben” was named for a heavyweight champion, Benjamin Caunt, while another theory postulates that the name comes from Sir Benjamin Hall, who was a Welsh civil engineer who worked on the clock tower’s construction.
3. The clock tower itself was actually officially known as “The Clock Tower” until 2012 when it was formally renamed “The Elizabeth Tower” in honor of Queen Elizabeth II for her Diamond Jubilee.
4. Adding to the name game is the fact that the clock tower when it was first built in 1859, was originally going to be called “The Victoria Tower.”
5. Another name for the tower was “St. Stephen’s Tower.” This was the way journalists referred to it during its Victorian days. Westminster is called “San Steffan” in Welsh, where the name persists.
6. The bell which gives “Big Ben” its name is pretty big, weighing in at 123.5 tons.
7. However big Big Ben might be, it isn’t indestructible, and the most famous clock in the world began life by breaking down again and again.
In fact, just like Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, Big Ben cracked one of the first times it was rung as it was being tested in 1857.
That may not be as much of a coincidence as you may think – the same company, Whitechapel Bell foundry, cast both bells.
8. This led to a second bell being cast in 1858 – which also cracked. It cracked once again in 1859. It rang for the first time on 11 July 1859, but in September of that year, it cracked yet again, resulting in Big Ben falling silent for four years.
Eventually, the engineers servicing the bell decided to use a lighter hammer and turn the bell a quarter clockwise, which resolved the problem.
9. On the topic of Big Ben being silenced, if you’re planning on traveling to London and hope to hear the most famous clock tower in the world ring out, you’ll have to hold off on those plans for a little while.
With Britain in the grips of its controversial Brexit crisis, “the time is out of joint” and symbolically enough, London’s beloved clocktower fell silent for four years in 2017 to undergo extensive renovation and refurbishment work.
10. These aren’t the only times Big Ben has fallen silent. It was silenced for nine months in 1976 and seven weeks in 2007, both times for repairs.
11. One thing that couldn’t silence Big Ben? World War II. While it was silenced for two years during World War I, Big Ben continued to ring out throughout World War II.
Even in the midst of Britain’s darkest days during the Blitz, Big Ben tolled every hour, on the hour.
What it did not do, however, was maintaining its clockface’s lovely luminescent nighttime glow. In both World Wars, the clockface was not illuminated so as to cut down on electricity usage and not attract German Zeppelins or Nazi bombers.
12. That isn’t to say that Big Ben survived the Blitz unscathed. A Nazi bombing run on 10 May 1941 resulted in damage to both Big Ben as well as Parliament.
A House of Commons chamber was completely destroyed, but aside from minor damage to the top and some of the ornamentation, Big Ben survived completely intact.
13. World War II also saw the advent of “the Silent Minute.” Throughout the Blitz and the battles of 1940, before the 9 pm BBC news radio broadcast each night, British citizens were encouraged to spend the sixty seconds during which Big Ben chimed reflecting on the battles going on and send prayers and best wishes to those fighting for Britain and the cause of liberty against the Nazis.
14. Big Ben’s chimes were broadcast via radio for the first time on New Year’s Eve in 1923, ringing in the New Year.
15. The chimes were the first broadcast to an international audience in 1932 during a speech by George V.
16. Big Ben stands 96 meters tall, with 334 steps running from the bottom to the top. For those not willing to undergo such a workout to make it to the top, take heart – one of the upgrades to be added during this current spell of renovations is a lift.
17. Is another oh-so-important improvement being added? Big Ben’s first toilet.
18. When it was completed, Big Ben was the largest four-sided chiming clock in the world.
19. Big Ben still has and operates by its Victorian machinery.
20. However, it also features modern machinery as a backup should those Victorian systems fail.
21. Extreme weather has stopped the clock from time to time. In 1968 a heavy buildup of January snow stopped the clock’s hands for a few hours, while the clock stopped again briefly on 27 May 2004, likely due to the heat hovering around 31.8 Celsius.
22. On New Year’s Eve 1962, a buildup of ice and snow caused Big Ben to ring in the New Year ten minutes late.
23. A Latin inscription can be found at the base of the clock which reads “Domine Salvam fac Reginam Nostram Victoriam Primam,” which translates to “O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First.”
24. Each of Big Ben’s four clock faces has 23 lightbulbs, illuminating each side of the clock. Every lightbulb has an average lifespan of 60,000 hours or nearly seven years.
25. Another point about light and Big Ben? If you stand by the base of the clock tower, you’ll hear the chimes about a sixth of a second after they are struck.
If you listen live on radio, however, you’ll actually hear the bells a split-second sooner due to the difference in speed between sound and light.
26. Looking to tour Big Ben’s historic interior? Well, unless you’re a UK resident, you may be out of luck. Typically, only residents of the UK are allowed to tour the classic clock tower’s interior, and only after they have made an appointment well in advance.
27. It isn’t quite the Leaning Tower of London, but changing ground conditions over the centuries has caused Big Ben to lean ever so slightly. It currently leans 230 millimeters to the northwest.
28. In addition, thermal conditions throughout the year cause it to lean by a few millimeters to the east or west.
29. If that has you fretting about the future of the famous tower, don’t worry – experts say the lean shouldn’t be significant enough to pose a problem for 5,000 to 10,000 years.
30. Big Ben of London stopped for a few hours again in 1965, not from mechanical or weather-induced problems, but for Winston Churchill’s funeral.
31. In order to ensure accurate timekeeping, workers wind Big Ben three times a week.
32. Big Ben tolled at 8:12 am on 27 July 2012 to welcome guests from around the world to the opening of the Olympic Games.
33. The foundation stone for the clocktower was laid in 1843, and its foundations run 103 feet deep.
34. From the laying of the first foundation stone to its completion took six years.
35. For such an iconic timekeeping piece, Big Ben began life behind schedule, with the clock being completed in 1859, five years after the target completion date.
36. Big Ben of London has lasted through the reigns of six British monarchs – Victoria, Edward VI, George V, Edward VIII, George VI, and Elizabeth II – with the two queens’ reigns easily taking up more than two-thirds of its history.
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37. The belfry hosts four quarter bells, one for each quarter of an hour, and if you have an acute musical ear, you can actually tell the time just by listening, as they each toll a distinct note – G-sharp, F-sharp, B, and E.
38. London is famous for its smog, especially during Victorian times, which turned the hands and detailing of the clock from blue (as originally intended) to black.
It remained that way throughout the twentieth century when it was painted black during restoration efforts, but the 2017 restoration has seen its hands and detailing repainted to its original blue.
39. A special light, the Ayrton Light, is lit while Parliament is in session.
40. On Roman sundials, you’ll find the “4” part of the clock marked as “IIII.” On Big Ben, however, the standard Roman numeral “IV” is used.
41. The glass which forms each of the clock faces is truly magnificent, with each boasting 312 opal glass shards.
42. As lovely as they are, however, the window panes which form each of the clock faces are so fragile that they could conceivably be shattered by a fast incoming bird.
43. That isn’t the only peril birds pose to the clock. In 1949, a flock of starlings resting on one of the hands was heavy enough to slow the clock down.
44. Big Ben was designed by Edmund Beckett Denison and Edward Dent. Interestingly for the most famous clock in the world (and one overlooking one of the capitals of the world at that), Beckett Denison wasn’t a clockmaker but a lawyer.
45. Within the interior workings, there is a pendulum which, if pennies are added, can slow down the clock. Adding a single penny will slow the clock by 2/5 of a second per day.
This is sometimes done when very minute changes in time are needed to keep Big Ben accurate.
46. That commitment to accuracy has continued to pay off, as all these years later, Big Ben is still accurate to within one second.
47. Even though it is currently silent for renovations, Big Ben still chimes for New Year’s, Remembrance Day, and other major occasions.
48. Monet painted a series of paintings showing Big Ben and Parliament in different lighting conditions.
49. Big Ben is one of the UK’s most iconic sights and has long served as cinematic shorthand for the country and London in particular.
In Disney’s Peter Pan, Peter Pan, Wendy, and the children stand on the clock’s hands. Big Ben is also in the background during the iconic shot of Mary Poppins arriving via umbrella in Disney’s Mary Poppins.
The head of Spectre demands that Big Ben toll seven times at 6 pm as a sign of a ransom or he’ll destroy a city in the Sean Connery James Bond film Thunderball.
It’s front and center on the small screen, too – Big Ben features prominently in the openings of Yes, Minister and the British version of House of Cards, and an alien spaceship smashes into its clock face in the Doctor Who episode “Aliens of London.”
50. We love literature here, so let’s close with one of Big Ben’s most famous literary appearances.
In her masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf describes how the titular character is filled with “suspense… before Big Ben of London strikes” while describing the chimes themselves as “first a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable,” their sound ringing out across Westminster like “leaden circles dissolve[ing] in the air.”