Big Ben: Unveiling History and Culture

By Lana Sterling

Big Ben is the popular name for the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster, officially known as the Elizabeth Tower. This 96 metre high neo-Gothic tower was built in the mid-19th century and has become one of the most recognisable architectural structures in the world.
Let’s delve into the fascinating history and cultural significance of Big Ben by exploring its fascinating facts and its prominent presence in art and culture.

History of construction

Big Ben was built after a fire in 1834 destroyed much of the Palace of Westminster, where the British Parliament met. It was decided to restore the Palace and add a clock tower that would be the most accurate in the world. An architectural competition was held and won by Charles Barry. His assistant was Augustus Pugin, who designed the tower in the neo-Gothic style characteristic of Westminster Abbey and Palace. Construction of the Tower began in 1843 and was completed in 1858. The Tower was named after Queen Victoria, who reigned at the time.

Behind the name: Unveiling the Elizabeth Tower

Contrary to popular belief, the name “Big Ben” refers specifically to the resounding Great Bell housed within the iconic clock tower. The entirety of this architectural marvel is rightly known as the Elizabeth Tower, a name that pays homage to Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, celebrating her 60th year on the throne. Standing at a staggering 316 feet, the Elizabeth Tower serves as a towering symbol of London’s rich history and architectural marvels, showcasing the skill and craftsmanship of the Victorian era.

Tower Architecture

The Big Ben Tower consists of a brick base faced with coloured limestone and a spire topped with a gold star. The height of the tower, including the spire, is 96 metres and its inclination to the north-west is 0.26 degrees. There are no lifts in the tower and to get to the top you have to climb 334 steps. At a height of 55 metres there are four clock faces, each with a diameter of 7 metres. The dials are made of opal glass and are illuminated by 28 energy-saving bulbs. The hour hands are 2.8 metres long and the minute hands are 4.3 metres long. Above each dial is an inscription in Latin: DOMINE SALVAM FAC REGINAM NOSTRAM VICTORIAM PRIMAM, which means “Lord save our Queen Victoria the First”.

Clock and bells

The Big Ben Clock works on the principle of a pendulum that swings from one point to another in a second, driving the clock mechanism. The pendulum is 4 metres long and weighs 300 kilograms. To adjust the speed of the pendulum, penny coins are sometimes used, which are placed on or off the pendulum. Big Ben’s clock is considered to be one of the most accurate in the world, with an error of no more than two seconds per week.

Inside the tower there are five bells that ring every hour and every quarter of an hour. The largest, Big Ben, weighs 13.7 tonnes and has a diameter of 2.7 metres. Its tongue weighs 200 kilograms. Big Ben sounds the note E and strikes a number of beats equal to the current hour. The other four bells are smaller and strike the notes G#, F#, E and B. They strike four different tunes, called “Westminster Quarters”, to mark the quarter-hour.

Crack in the bell

Big Ben didn’t always sound as we hear it today. Shortly after it struck time for the first time in 1859, the excessive force of the chime caused a 1.2 metre long crack to form in the bell. The bell fell silent for several years until it was turned 90 degrees and a new hole was made for the tongue. This allowed the bell to sound again, but with a different timbre. The crack in the bell still remains and is considered to be its characteristic feature.

Big Ben’s echoing presence in art and culture

Big Ben’s enchanting melody has not only marked time, but has also left an indelible mark on the world of art and culture. Through its resounding chimes, it has inspired artists, writers and filmmakers, becoming a muse for creative expression.

The artist’s vision: Claude Monet

French painter Claude Monet, famous for his captivating series of paintings of the Houses of Parliament, was inspired by the magnificent presence of Big Ben. His brushstrokes captured the interplay of light and shadow and set the clock tower against the backdrop of the River Thames, immortalising its timeless allure on canvas.

Literary reverence: Charles Dickens

Literary maestro Charles Dickens often wove the emotive chimes of Big Ben into his vivid descriptions of London, immortalising its majestic aura within the pages of his literary masterpieces. In works such as Bleak House and Great Expectations, the presence of Big Ben becomes a metaphor for the passage of time and the intricacies of human existence, adding a poignant layer of depth to his narratives.

Cinematic allure: Big Ben on the big screen

The cinematic world has also fallen under the spell of Big Ben, using its grandeur to create unforgettable moments on screen. In particular, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, The Thirty-Nine Steps, features memorable scenes with the imposing silhouette of Big Ben, cementing its allure in the collective memory of cinema lovers.

In conclusion, Big Ben is not only an architectural masterpiece but also a living testament to the rich heritage and cultural influence of Great Britain. Its clock and bells serve as a landmark and symbol for millions of people.


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