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Big Ben – London, England

Among the more prominent features of Great Britain’s capital is ’Big Ben’, officially known as the Great Bell of Westminster.  The tower sports a massive clock and hour bell, and is part of the larger Palace of Westminster, which houses the British Houses of Parliament that govern the United Kingdom.  The name ’Big Ben’ originates from Sir Benjamin Hall—the Commissioner of Works at the time of the bell’s casting in 1856.  Visitors should note that Big Ben is not the tower proper, it is only the name of the bell.  The tower is known simply as ”the Clock Tower”.


Big Ben is part of the Palace of Westminster, on grounds occupied since the Saxons ruled the area.  The oldest buildings in the area date back to 1097.  The presence of royal grounds dates back to 1050 when Edward the Confessor built a royal palace on the site.  For the next 500 years, Westminster was the residence of the royal monarchs.  After a fire prompted Henry VIII to move out of the building to the Palace of Whitehall, the building remained in use as both a palace and the home of the English parliament.  It has remained like this since January 20, 1265.  A raging fire in 1834 destroyed many of the ancient buildings, but they were replaced in 1870 with a new set of constructed buildings that still stand today.  It was during the rebuilding process that Big Ben came into existence in the massive clock tower.


The Clock Tower housing Big Ben is the most famous feature of the London landscape.  It stands 320 feet high on the banks of the Thames River.  The bell itself weights 13.8 tonnes, while the striking hammer weights 203.2 kilograms.  It is tuned for the E note just above middle C.  When operating, the hammer strikes the bell every 5 seconds.  Big Ben is not the biggest or heaviest bell in England.  That distinction goes to ’Great Paul’ in the nearby St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Great Paul is a full 2 tonnes heavier than Big Ben.

A large crack developed in the bell due to a heavier hammer in use in the 1860s.  That’s when the controversial move to rotate the bell and replace the hammer with a lighter one was made.  While this saved on expensive re-casting costs, it also meant that the bell no longer struck a true E note.

Also housed in the tower are the four quarter bells used to play the Westminster Chimes every 15 minutes.  Big Ben is prominently heard on many of BBC’s broadcasts on the hour, a tradition dating back to 1923.  There aren’t many clocks of this size in the world, nor are there any that can keep time as accurately.  If you’re stopping in London, be sure to grab a picture!