No, Big Ben Is Not A Clock Tower In London (But It Sorta Is)

On May 31, 1859, London rang the bell on its newest clock tower. The people of London enjoyed the perfect pitch of Big Ben for the first time, a sound which would echo into the modern age, a symbol of England’s former position as the world’s superpower.

The construction of the new clock tower was part of the redesign of Westminster Palace, nearly burned to the ground in the 1830s.

Had the blaze been an act of terrorism, the erection of the clock tower might have foreshadowed the events that would befall New York City on September 11th, 2001.

That was the day a fire destroyed the city’s gem, the palace. The determination of the people was to build something better in its place.

What followed was the usual bureaucratic red tape, which slows anything important. It would be 25 years before Big Ben could signal the recovery.

The Old Parliament

When the fire broke out, it was a matter of careless fire management, not arson. That was October 16, 1834.

At the time, accountants tended to burn their used wooden tally sticks [think: early form of debt payment proof] in furnaces under the House of Lords.

On the night of the 16th, those fires burned out of control then took out the House of Lords, a chapel, the House of Commons, and several other chambers of the palace.

The upside of the event was the chance to redesign Windsor, the sum total of which would include a new clock tower, the finest clock tower the world had seen to date.

They did not call that tower Big Ben. That’s the name of the bell inside the tower, which is itself a nickname. The bell is actually the Great Bell.

At that time, they called the tower… [trumpets]… The Clock Tower.

Edmund Becket Dennison

Under the insistence of the royal astronomer, Sir George Airy, the clock tower for the rebuild would have impeccable accuracy.

At the time, many felt Airy’s goals were unreachable, but then he brought in Edmund Beckett Denison to facilitate the design. Denison was a horologist, an expert in the science of time measurement.

He designed the clock, then commissioned a company by the name of E.J. Dent & Co. to manufacture it. They had their part of the tower completed in 1854, five years before builders completed the actual tower.

Denison’s design was everything Airy had hoped for, pinpoint-accurate, and beautiful clock. There was only one problem. The hammer Denison designed to ring the bell cracked it later that year.

The Great Bell

There are other bells in the tower, but only one is Big Ben. It took a team of 16 horses to drag the 13-ton bell through the streets of London to the Tower.

The debate about the origins of the bell’s nickname point to a London Commissioner named Sir Benjamin Hall or a boxer named Benjamin Caunt, depending on whom you ask.

Either way, the nickname stuck so well, it has come to mean the clock and the tower. (The official name for the tower is Elizabeth Tower, renamed as such in 2012.)

When the hammer cracked the Great Bell in September 859, they didn’t replace the bell, only turned it then installed a smaller hammer. It’s the same bell, just a little different sonically.

This design was not selected.

If one considers the technology available today versus back then, a twenty-five-year turnaround beats the timeline for rebuilding the WTC in New York. Of course, Big Ben is no skyscraper either, and America does bureaucracy so much better than anyone.

[insert: snort]

The tower survived two world wars and didn’t stop during either one, despite an attack during the Second World War. The first time the clock broke was in 1941 when a worker dropped a hammer into the gears.

There have been adjustments and minor incidents over the years, but to this day it remains the engineering marvel intended by Sir Airy.