Big Ben: Behind The Scenes Of The World’s Most Famous Clock
As years of restoration work on London’s iconic Big Ben come to a close, we look at the history of the celebrated timekeeper.
November 2021 certainly started with a bang. And with all the excitement over the horological masterpieces at Only Watch, GPHG, and the Geneva auctions, we are reminded of just how far horology has come in the last 200 years.
In fact, it got us at Watchonista thinking of the most legendary clock of all – Big Ben in London. The timekeeper has been under restoration since 2017, but, finally, after many delays, its chimes are scheduled to peal again in early 2022, making it a good time to reflect on Big Ben’s fascinating timeline.
In the Beginning
Formally called the Elizabeth Tower, the clock tower, more commonly known as Big Ben, sits atop the Palace of Westminster, which serves as the meeting place for the Houses of Parliament. It is one of London’s most emblematic landmarks (technically, Big Ben is the name given to the massive,13-ton-plus bell housed inside the clock tower).
Enthusiasts today like to fret about the cost of high-end watches, but it wasn’t that long ago that few people could afford a timepiece at all. In Victorian times, knocker uppers were employed to tap on peoples’ windows just to wake them up, so they wouldn’t be late for work.
That is why public clocks were so important.
After John Harrison introduced the first marine in 1764, which consolidated Britain’s position as an important horological force, the Victorian era (1837-1901) ushered in the golden age of watchmaking in England. Good thing because the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century depended on precision – church bells chiming on the hour just wouldn’t cut it anymore.
Thus, when a fire destroyed the Palace of Westminster in 1834, the government decided to rebuild bigger and better.
Build Back Better
The Palace of Westminster was reconstructed in the 1840s by architect Charles Barry, who then hired Augustus Welby Pugin to execute his distinctive gothic revival vision for the clocktower.
Designing a clock to fit Pugin’s concept was the real challenge. According to government records, the Astronomer Royal (because at the time, the most accurate measurement of time was the sun) wanted the most precise turret clock in the world, specifying that it should be accurate within one second of striking the hour.
Clockmaker Edward John Dent exemplified the Victorian ardor for technological discovery. At the time, England was the epicenter of watchmaking, and Dent was commissioned to create precision chronometers for the Royal Navy at the height of the British Empire. Dent also manufactured the original GMT – the standard clock at the royal observatory in Greenwich – with “Greenwich Mean Time” being the time to which all the dominions in the commonwealth referred.
Naturally, Dent won the commission to create what would become the most famous clock in the world, Big Ben.
Fun Fact: While Edward Dent built the clock we know as Big Ben, it was actually based on a design by Edmund Beckett Denison, an amateur horologist and lawyer. Fortunately, it fit the brief.
Time After Time
When Big Ben was finally finished in 1859, it was described as “the prince of timekeepers: the biggest, most accurate four-faced striking and chiming clock in the world.”
This regal regulator is powered by a double three-legged gravity escapement – one of the most significant horological advances of the 19th century. An escapement is a device in a mechanical clock that transfers energy to its timekeeping element to provide accuracy. It’s driven by force from a coiled spring or weight that is then transferred throughout the clock’s gear train.
With each swing of the pendulum, one tooth of the escapement’s gear wheel advances, allowing the gear train to move forward by a fixed amount. The sound of each tooth or cog catching on the gear makes a ticking sound.
In the case of the Elizabeth Tower, the mechanism alone, made of cast iron, weighs five metric tons, and each of the four-minute hands is nearly 14 feet long. With a few notable exceptions, Big Ben’s bells kept ringing, and its dials have been displaying accurate time for 157 years. It is a testament to its designers and engineers.
The Fix Is In
While the clock was built to the most exacting standards of the Victorian age, its builders never anticipated events like World War II and the damage caused to the dials by bombings, or the effects of acid rain and other changes to the environment; not to mention the wear and tear from over a million tourists. Over the years, Big Ben has had many touch-ups, but this marks the first time that the clock has been completely dismantled.
The project was tasked to Ian G. Westworth, a repairer and conservator of antique clocks and clock mechanic for the Houses of Parliament. Westworth is one of over 500 artisans and workers restoring the Palace of Westminster’s Elizabeth Tower and its Great Clock.
The team has left no detail untouched, replacing the 1,296 pieces of shimmery, mouth-blown pot opal glass on its four dials, each about 23 feet in diameter. Multiple layers of black and dark green paint have been removed from the dials and stonework, using solvents and tiny brushes.
Along the way, the team has also made some amazing discoveries. In October, for example, when the hour and minute hands were put back in place, they had been restored to their original Persian blue color – a vibrant shade that had been hidden under decades of coal pollution and other grime.
It is also hoped that a good cleaning will improve the accuracy of the clock. Before the restoration began, it was running up to six seconds behind original specifications.
Ring the Bells
Big Ben has always been an extension of the Palace of Westminster, the building which houses the Parliament of the United Kingdom. In this sense, it is a symbolic connection between the government and the people.
As a symbol, it has been sorely missed – especially during these chaotic times. Besides the pandemic holding the project up, the skyrocketing cost – at least 80 million pounds to date – has also slowed things down. But, as work on Parliament’s Elizabeth Tower nears completion, it’s hoped Big Ben will chime hourly again early next year.
Big Ben won’t sound any different, but hopefully, its bell and history will resonate with a new, improved world.
(All images sources mentioned, header image: Big Ben cloned © AlmapBBDO, São Paulo, Brazil)