Big Ben has become a symbol of London, as well as the setting for numerous films. Credit: UK Parliament

  • Tungsteno

The secrets of the world's most iconic clock

The enormous dials of the Great Clock of Westminster housed in Big Ben are seven metres in diameter. Each hour hand measures 2.7 metres, while the minute hand is 4.5 metres long. Let’s look at how this iconic London megastructure was erected and the challenges it faces today.

ISABEL RUBIO ARROYO | Tungsteno

 

The tower of Big Ben (officially renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012) is about the same height as 21 London double-decker buses stacked one on top of the other—some 96 metres—and houses the most famous clock on the planet. As well as being the setting for films and series such as Peter PanFriendsThe Parent Trap and Minions, it has become one of the most characteristic symbols of London. As we enter the new year, we take a look at the construction and maintenance of this iconic clock, whose tower has begun to lean like the Tower of Pisa.

Two years to build the clock mechanism

An accidental fire in 1834 destroyed most of the old Palace of Westminster, which housed the British Parliament; only a few parts of the structure survivedThe new design, devised by architect Charles Barry, retained these surviving medieval parts and included two towers. According to the website of the UK parliament: "The clock tower on Barry’s original proposal was not the 96-meter tall iconic building we know and love today." The young Gothic Revival architect Augustus Welby Pugin collaborated with Barry on the design and decorative elements of the New Palace of Westminster, and through his influence the clock tower gained in size and importance.

Constructing a clock of such magnitude was a great challenge. It took two years to complete its mechanism and cost £2,500 (the equivalent of about £285,000 today). The clock successfully began to tell the time in May 1859. To ensure that it worked perfectly, a telegraph cable was used to send the time on the chronometers at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich—the most accurate in the country—to the New Palace of Westminster.

The clock mechanism is regularly tested to ensure it works perfectly. Credit: UK Parliament

Big Ben as a symbol of freedom

The five bells of this iconic clock are struck by hammers from the outside. The largest bell, which is called Big Ben, weighs 13.7 tonnes. Its chimes, which can be heard more than eight kilometres away, have been silenced on rare occasions; for example, for maintenance work and in 1916 to protect the city from attacking German Zeppelins.

More than two decades later, during the Second World War, the bells played a different role. "The bells of the clock tower have been broadcast on the radio since New Year’s Eve 1923 and they became a symbol of freedom throughout the Second World War, raising the morale of people at home and of those fighting overseas," says the UK Parliament.

As the gigantic structure was too easily recognisable in the London sky, in 1939 the clock's lights were switched off until the end of the war in 1945. This did not prevent the Palace of Westminster from being hit by bombs 14 times. But it was not until decades later that it was discovered that the damage had been more severe than previously thought: "Modern surveying technology revealed fractures and structural damage which was not detectable by the methods available in the 1940s and 1950s."

The Palace of Westminster was hit by bombs during World War II. Credit: UK Parliament

Big Ben tower mimics that of Pisa

On top of all this damage, London's legendary clock tower has begun to lean like the Tower of Pisa"I have heard tourists there taking photographs saying: ‘I don’t think it is quite vertical’ - and they are quite right," John Burland, emeritus professor at Imperial College London, tells the BBC. In theory, the tower is slowly sinking because of underground work that has been carried out in the area over the past few decades—on underground lines, car parks and the sewers.

The tilt accelerated between 2003 and 2011, increasing to 0.9 millimetres a year, compared to the long-term average rate of 0.65 millimetres a year, according to a report commissioned by the London Underground and the Parliamentary Estates Department. Burland told Reuters that if the process were to accelerate further, "we would have to look at doing something, but I don't think we need to do anything for a few years yet." At the current rate, engineers say, it would take 4,000 years to reach a tilt as exaggerated as the Tower of Pisa.

London's legendary clock tower has begun to lean like the Tower of Pisa. Credit: Pexels

While waiting to see how the tower's leaning progresses, a variety of maintenance projects have been carried out over in recent decades. Between 2017 and 2022, the Great Clock underwent "the most intensive conservation in its history," according to the UK Parliament. The Victorian mechanism of the clock was successfully reinstalled, the bells were tested and energy-saving LED lighting was fitted to the clock faces. During this conservation work, visits to its iconic clock tower have been paused. The UK Parliament, which expects to welcome visitors again in spring 2023, says: "Big Ben is coming back."

 

· — —
Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation

  • Historic building

We use our own and third party cookies for analytical purposes. Click on HERE for more information. You can accept all cookies by clicking the "Accept" button or set them up or refuse their use by clicking .

Cookie declaration

These cookies are necessary for the website to function and cannot be disabled in our systems. These cookies do not store any personally identifiable information.

Name Provider Purpose Expiration Type
LFR_Sesión_STATE_* Liferay Manage your session as a registered user Session HTTP
GUEST_LANGUAGE_ID Liferay Determines the language with which it accesses, to show the same in the next session 1 year HTTP
ANONYMOUS_USER_ID Liferay Manage your session as an unregistered user 1 year HTTP
COOKIE_SUPPORT Liferay Identifies that the use of cookies is necessary for the operation of the portal 1 year HTTP
JSesiónID Liferay Manages login and indicates you are using the site Session HTTP
SACYRGDPR Sacyr Used to manage the cookie policy Session HTTP

These cookies allow us to count visits and sources of circulation in order to measure and improve the performance of our site. They help us know which pages are the most or least popular, and see how many people visit the site. All information collected by these cookies is aggregated and therefore anonymous.

Name Provider Purpose Expiration Type
_gat Google It is used to throttle the request rate - limiting the collection of data on high traffic sites Session HTTP
_gid Google It is used to store and update a unique value for each page visited Session HTTP
_ga Google This is used for statistical and analytical purposes for increasing performance of our Services Session HTTP