The Big Ben Clock: A History of This Iconic Tower

Where you live doesn't matter. Even if you've never visited the city of London, you will recognize an image of the Big Ben clock. While the name actually refers to something besides the clock, it has become the title for this clock tower over the years.

Join us as we explore the structure and ultimate meaning of this universally recognizable clock. When it comes to famous clocks around the world, this one tops the list.

The True Name: Elizabeth Tower

The name that we know the tower by is actually the name of the clock tower's Great Bell. The true name of the structure is the Elizabeth Tower. It was originally known as "Clock Tower" but it was renamed to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II.

The clock itself is the second largest four-faced chiming clock in the world, Minneapolis City Hall is the largest. The tower's construction was completed in 1858 and it celebrated a 150th anniversary on May 31st, 2009.

Today the tower is a major symbol of the United Kingdom and it is used as an establishing shot in films that are set within the city of London. The tower's conception began after a fire destroyed the old Palace of Westminster in 1834. Charles Barry was tasked with designing the new Parliament building and chose a Neo-gothic style.

While Barry was the main architect, he sought assistance from Augustus Pugin for the clock tower's design. This was Pugin's final design before he eventually went mad and died, but it became quite a legacy for him. Pugin remarked on his work saying "I never worked so hard in my life for Mr. Barry for tomorrow I render all the designs for finishing his bell tower and it is beautiful."

The Structure of the Clock and Tower

The bottom 200 feet of the tower is composed of bricks and colored Anston limestone cladding. The rest of the tower is made from a framed spire of cast iron. While the tower is one of the most popular attractions in the world, people from overseas aren't actually allowed to see inside.

Citizens in London can arrange for a tour of the tower, though it must be made well in advance, and it has to be coordinated through their Member of Parliament. There is no elevator in the tower so anyone who takes the tour must climb the 334 limestone stairs to reach the top.

The ground has changed since the construction of the tower. As a result, the tower itself leans to the northwest by approximately 9.1 inches. The clock dials are made from 312 pieces of opal glass per face. These opal shards are set in an iron frame to give off the impression of a stained glass window.

Each clock face on the tower also has a Latin inscription on it that reads "Domine Salvam Fac Reginam Nostram Victoriam Primam" which translates to "O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First.

The clock's movement and inner workings are famous for being incredibly reliable. The designers of the mechanics behind the clock were the horologist Edmund Beckett Denison and the Astronomer Royal George Airy. When one of the designers passed away, Edward John Dent took over for the work until it was completed.

He had time to experiment with the mechanics though, and he actually changed the machinery from the deadbeat escapement to a double three-legged gravity escapement. Essentially he managed to create an escapement that created a separation between the pendulum and the clock.

The precision is so intense that the top of the pendulum actually has a stack of old penny coins on it that adjusts the time of the clock. By adding a coin, the pendulum's center of mass is adjusted by 0.4 seconds. During World War II, a German bombing raid damaged some of the clock's dials and destroyed the House of Commons chamber. Despite this damage, the clock continued moving forward accurately.

The Great Bell

The main bell in the clock tower known simply as the "Great Bell" is the largest one in the tower and part of the Great Clock of Westminster. It's nickname is the one we've applied to the tower itself: "Big Ben."

The actual change to this name for the tower is debated in terms of its origin. The nickname for the bell originally came about potentially as a result of Sir Benjamin Hall who oversaw the bell's installation. There was also a boxing champion named Benjamin Caunt who may also have been the inspiration for the name.

Regardless, the Big Ben clock has become an iconic title and landmark that is recognized around the world.