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BIG BEN HISTORY

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The History of Big Ben

The construction of Big Ben was commissioned during the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster in the wake of an 1834 fire.

Parliament determined that the new buildings should incorporate an impressive clock tower and passed a bill to that end in 1844.

The clock tower was constructed on the northern extremity of the new Houses of Parliament that were built next to Westminster Hall.

The commission for the clock itself demanded a high level of accuracy; the specifications drafted by Astronomer Royal George Airy required that "the first stroke of the hour bell should register the time, correct to within one second per day, and furthermore that it should telegraph its performance twice a day to Greenwich Observatory, where a record would be kept."

Big Bend and the WestminsterMany clock makers were skeptical that such accuracy could be achieved in a mechanical clock, but Edmund Beckett Denison, a lawyer and amateur horologist, rose to the challenge.

He completed a pendulum clock design in 1851, and its assembly was begun by Edward John Dent, the owner of a prominent clock making company, and finished by his son Frederick Dent. It was completed in 1854, but construction on the tower lasted until 1859, providing Frederick Dent five years to test and perfect the clock.

Big Ben Clock TowerDenison also designed the hour bell. The prototype, cast in August 1856 by John Warner and Sons, cracked beyond repair during testing. Under owner George Mears, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (the oldest foundry in Britain, which coincidentally had cast the original Liberty Bell that cracked and had to be recast upon its arrival in the American colonies), met with more success when it melted down and recast the hour bell.

Completed in April 1858, the second and final version of the hour bell was the largest ever cast in the United Kingdom.

In fact, it was so colossal—over seven feet high and weighing more than 13 tons—that a team of 16 horses was needed to pull the wagon upon which it rested from the foundry to the Palace of Westminster.

The transportation took on the character of a parade, with enthusiastic crowds lining the streets as the caravan made its way through London.

It took several days in October 1858 to hoist the bell to the top of the tower.

big benFollowing the installation of the hour bell and four smaller quarter chime bells, Big Ben rang out for the first time on May 31, 1859.

Due to the fitting of an oversized hammer stipulated by Denison, the hour bell cracked the following September and did not come into regular service until its repair in 1862. The distinctive imperfect tone of the bell is the result of the crack, which was merely patched by a square piece of metal to bolster the bell's strength.

Big BenA lighter hammer was also installed to prevent further damage.

Setting of the clock was initially coordinated with the Greenwich Observatory via telegraph, and throughout its existence, Big Ben has garnered a reputation for remaining extremely accurate—as a result, it was not deemed necessary to replace the telegraph line after it was destroyed by German bombs during World War II.

Big Ben ClockLiving up to Airy's specifications, there have been very few instances of the clock's accuracy straying more than one second. The most notable example was in 1962, when a buildup of snow on the clock arms caused Big Ben to ring in the new year 10 minutes past midnight.

Surprisingly, the accuracy of the clock has been maintained by a relatively primitive method; pennies are used to adjust and balance the swing of the clock's pendulum.

Big Ben Colck Tower
Big Ben Clock Tower

Big Ben London
Big Ben Tower