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Big Ben in London Goes Silent for Repairs on the Clock Tower

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Repair Work Starts in January 2017

According to an article in The Buffalo News on April 28, 2016, British officials have announced that Big Ben, the famous bell in the Palace of Westminster, will be silent for several months during repairs to its crumbling clock tower.  The work, scheduled to start in January 2017, will last for three years.  The clock is a model of precision engineering, and has kept time for the past 157 years, since July 11, 1859, throughout the reigns of six monarchs, the tenure of 25 prime ministers, and the visits of countless world tourists who show up at Westminster just to hear Big Ben chime the hour.

The clock tower on the banks of the River Thames measures 316 feet in height. The faces of the four clocks are an impressive 23 square feet in size, and the bell itself, not seen from the outside, stands seven-and-a-half feet tall.

                                                

Elizabeth Tower

                                                           Elizabeth Tower in London                                                                                                                                           Wikimedia

Multiple Repairs are Needed

The problems facing Big Ben are horrendous.  Maintenance crews have uncovered difficulties with the clock’s hands, its mechanism, and its pendulum, which reduce its ability to function properly.  They have also discovered leaks, erosion, rusting, and cracked stonework in the tower proper, which do not meet fire safety guidelines.  In addition, structural defects are plaguing the Parliament complex with its out-of-date wiring, leaky pipes, asbestos, and rat infestation, all of which need attention.  Repairs to the complex are separate from the refurbishment of the clock tower, and will not begin until 2020 after the clock tower repairs are completed.

Cost of the Projects

It is planned to install an elevator to provide easier access to the tower, complementing its 334 stone spiral steps which are its only access at the present time.  The cost of repairs and improvements to Big Ben and the clock tower will total $42 million.  The Parliament complex repair costs are estimated at $6.2 million.

                                    

Palace of Westminster

                                                   Palace of Westminster - Wikimedia

Big Ben Refers to the Bell

Early on, Londoners nicknamed the clock “Big Ben,” but in reality the moniker refers to the main bell within the clock.  Over time, however, the name has come to encompass the entire clock tower, which weighs more than 13 tons.  Prior to 2012, the tower was referred to simply as the Clock Tower.  The term “St Stephens Tower” was used in Queen Victoria’s time by journalists who referred to all business conducted in the House of Commons as “News from St Stephens.”  The Clock Tower was renamed Elizabeth Tower on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012.  The renaming was fitting since the west tower was renamed Victoria Tower as a tribute to Queen Victoria on her Diamond Jubilee in 1897.  

The Bell will be Silenced

When the repairs begin in 2017, the bells will not toll for a while, and the tower will be enveloped in scaffolding for three years.  Parliament has assured citizens that the clock will continue to keep time, and one of its four faces will be visible at all times.  Tours of the tower, however, will be canceled for the duration of the repairs.

Big Ben was silenced twice before, for nine months in 1976, and for six weeks in 2007, when maintenance and repair work needed to be done.  According to the clockmakers, Big Ben will still chime during the next three years for high-profile events that will occur throughout the refurbishment, including at midnight on New Year’s Eve.  A recent innovation which might act as a substitute is a Twitter account which tweets “bongs” every hour and is highly popular.

 

Palace of Westminster

                                                    The Palace of Westminster - Wikimedia

History of Big Ben

On the night of the 16th of October, 1834 the old Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire.  The Houses of Parliament were on fire.  In 1844, Parliament decided that the new buildings under construction for the new Houses of Parliament should incorporate a tower and clock.

Parliament set up a committee to re-build and they held a competition for designs.  The requirements were "The Great Clock should be so accurate that the first strike for each hour shall be accurate to within one second of time." Expert clockmakers said it could not be done.  One man thought it was worth a try, Edmund Beckett Denison, a lawyer whose hobby was clock making.  He worked with Edward Dent, the clockmaker, to design the clock which would become the Great Clock in the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster.

Denison made many refinements including inventing the “Double Three-legged Gravity Escapement.”  This was a revolutionary mechanism, ensuring the clock's accuracy by making sure its pendulum was unaffected by external factors, such as wind pressure on the clock's hands.  Denison's invention has since been used in clocks all over the world.  It is also known as the “Grimthorpe Escapement” because Denison was made Baron Grimthorpe in 1886.

The Great Clock needed bells, one bell for the hour, plus four bells to chime the quarter hours. The makers arranged for the bells to chime a tune based on an aria from Handel’s Messiah.  That is the famous "Westminster Chime" that you hear just before Big Ben strikes the hour.  On July 11, 1859, Big Ben chimed the hour for the first time.  Under each clock dial there is a Latin inscription carved in stone: "Domine Salvam fac Reginam nostrum Victoriam primam" which means "O Lord, save our Queen Victoria the First."

 

Big Ben

                                             Big Ben - the Great Bell - Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, two months after it officially went into service, Big Ben cracked and was silent for four years.  A solution was found when Big Ben was turned by a quarter turn so the hammer struck a different spot.  The crack in the bell resulted in a less-than-perfect tone, and coins have to be used to regulate the pendulum as needed.  The pendulum measures thirteen feet in length and weighs nearly 700 pounds.

The Big Bell was supposed to be called "Victoria", after the Queen, but Londoners being Londoners, nicknamed it "Big Ben" and the name stuck.  At night, all four of the clock’s faces are illuminated.  A light above Big Ben is also lit to let the public know when Parliament is in session.  What the Statue of Liberty means to Americans is what Big Ben means to the British - a symbol of their democratic heritage.

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Big Ben: The Bell, the Clock and the Tower
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Bibliography

  1. Liam Stack "Iconic Big Ben to Fall Silent during $42 Million Renovation." The Buffalo News. 28/04/2016.
  2. "The Story of Big Ben." White Chapel Bell Foundrey. 28/04/2016. 28/04/2016 <Web >
  3. "The History of Big Ben." Big Ben Facts. 04/28/2016. 28/04/2016 <Web >
  4. "Big Ben History." Destination 360. 28/04/2016. 28/04/2016 <Web >

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