Situated 320 feet high in St. Stephen’s Tower, the famous clock, Big Ben, rang for the first time on May 31, 1859.
In October 1834, a fire destroyed the Palace of Westminster. The design of the new palace included a large clock at the top of a tower. Although thought impossible by many clock makers, Sir George Airy who was the royal astronomer wanted the clock to have pinpoint accuracy and be checked twice daily with the Royal Greenwich Observatory. He was backed by Edmund Beckett Denison, a barrister and an expert in the science of measuring time (horology).
E.J. Dent & Co. built the clock tower from Denison’s design and it was completed in 1854. The bell was cast on April 10, 1858 at Whitechapel Bell Foundry in East London. After two weeks of cooling, the bell was transported through the streets of London on a 16-horse drawn carriage while the people lined the route and cheered.
After it was installed in the tower, it was struck for the first time on May 31, 1859, Two months later, the heavy striker cracked the bell.
Incidentally, this bell was a replacement as the first bell cast elsewhere didn’t get past the testing stage before it cracked. There is another famous bell cast at White Chapel Foundry that is also famous for its crack, the Liberty Bell. I don’t think it can be blamed on shoddy workmanship because the Liberty Bell was in use 90 years before it cracked. For London’s bell, the striking hammer was replaced by one that was lighter and the clock was turned so it would strike a different service but the crack was never repaired.
Was the bell named “Big Ben” for the long-winded commissioner of works, Sir Benjamin Hall or the popular heavyweight boxer Benjamin Caunt? These are the two main stories that exist but soon the name was transferred from just the bell to the clock itself.
During the Second World War, an incendiary bomb destroyed the chamber of the House of Commons but St. Stephen’s Tower and Big Ben survived. The clock is famous for being accurate. This is achieved by a stack of coins placed on the huge pendulum which ensures a steady movement of the clock hands at all times. At night all four clock faces which are 23 feet across are illuminated. There is a light above Big Ben which is lit to let the public know when Parliament is in session.