Big Ben: The fascinating story of the creation one of Britain’s most enduring symbols

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Big Ben

On the night of October 16, 1834 a fire tore through the Palace of Westminster destroying the houses of Parliament. Ten years later, with a new Palace under construction, the Parliament voted that their new residence should contain a clock tower. The job of designing the specifications for this clock was given to The Astronomer Royal, George Airy. Airy soon shocked clock-makers by announcing that the clock would have to be accurate to within one second everyday. Most clock makers at the time considered such accuracy impossible for a large clock that would be exposed to the weather. Protests were filed, but Airy stood his ground. The problem went back to Parliament who voted to assign a barrister named Edmund Beckett Denison to help Airy.

With clock makers still arguing that the task was impossible, Edmund Beckett Denison decided to design the clock himself. He completed his design in 1851 and the clock was ready by the end of 1854. However, the tower was not ready to hold it, and the clock would spend 5 years sitting in the factory.

Denison had other things to worry about. Although the clock was done, there was still the matter of the bells. The Architect’s original design had called for a 14 ton main bell, which was nearly 4 tons heavier than any bell ever cast in Britain up to that point. Denison again took the task upon himself, designing the bell and coming up with his own formula for the bell metal. The finish product ended up weighing 16 tons and cracked when it was tested. Undeterred Denison went to another foundry and cast the bell again.

This bell was transported to the tower in great ceremony, and on May 31, 1859 it rang for the first time over London. According to the stories, Parliament held a special session that day to discuss the naming of the bell. One of the speakers, Benjamin Hall gave a particularly long-winded speech. When he finally finished, someone shouted out that they should just name it Big Ben. Another common explanation says that Big Ben was so named because it was the largest of its type, same as the popular boxer Benjamin Big Ben Caunt.

Two months after it first rang out, Big Ben cracked. It took three years to remove the bell, fix it, and replace it. The bell has hung in the tower ever since. It is a slight miracle that the tower survived the German bombing in World War II, but it made it through unscathed. Today, Big Ben’s chime can be heard in London ever day, made distinctive by the crack that was never fully repaired.