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When visiting London, one of the most iconic structures in the grand old city is Big Ben. In fact, the tower is one of the most recognizable buildings around the world. Big Ben symbolizes the United Kingdom and parliament and frequently graces still shots of London.
We all recognize Big Ben however how much do we really know about it?
Check out these fun facts about Big Ben and discover something new.
Fun Facts About Big Ben
Before diving into the rest of the fun facts, let’s discuss the name. The most surprising thing about this tower is that its name isn’t really Big Ben! The largest bell in the tower is nicknamed Big Ben. The tower’s official name is currently Elizabeth Tower, changed from Clock Tower in 2012 in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.
A hundred years ago the tower went by the name St. Stephen’s Tower. The clock within the tower is known as the Great Clock.
Because everyone refers to the tower as Big Ben, I will too throughout this post.
Big Ben’s Stats
The tower stands 315 feet tall and contains 11 stories with 334 steps rising to the belfry. Each of the four clock faces is 23 feet in diameter and composed of 300+ sections of opal glass. The hour hand is 9.2 feet long while the minute hand is 14 feet long. Twenty eight energy efficient bulbs illuminate each clock dial.
From 1939 to April 1945 the clock faces remained unlit, in compliance with wartime blackout rules.
The Big Bell
Big Ben is the nickname of the largest bell in the tower. It weighs 13.7 tons, stands 7.2 feet tall and has a diameter of 8.9 feet. It’s intended name was Royal Victoria.
The original bell cracked during testing in October 1857. The replacement bell developed a crack too, in 1859. They turned that bell a quarter clockwise and installed a lighter hammer. The bell remains flawed but it works.
When struck, the bell chimes with the musical note E. Four smaller bells rest beneath Big Ben. They ring on the quarter hour and chime in G sharp, F sharp and B.
For the Birds
In 1949 a flock of starlings roosted on the clock’s minute hand. As more and more birds gathered, their combined weight slowed the time-keeping mechanism, setting it back five minutes.
On New Year’s Eve 1962, heavy snow and ice slowed time as well. The clock rang in the new year 10 minutes late.
Except for rare instances, such as those listed above, the clock is considered the most accurate in the world. It stays that way with the use of copper penny weights on the clock mechanism. Removing or adding a penny changes the clock’s accuracy by two fifths of a second per day.
They replaced three of the pennies for the London Olympics in 2012.
Keeper of the Clock
The keeper of the Great Clock is Steve Jaggs. He ensures that the clock is well maintained and oversees the changing of the time twice a year. He also heads up a team of clockmakers responsible for all of the clocks in the Palace of Westminster.
Did you know a prison exists inside Big Ben? One third of the way up the stairs is the Prison Room. MPs, in breach of codes of conduct, were imprisoned there.
It was last used as a prison in 1880 when newly elected MP Charles Bradlaugh refused to swear allegiance to Queen Victoria on the bible. He spent one night in the room. There’s a pub named after Bradlaugh in Northhampton.
Big Ben has its own Twitter account! It tweets the appropriate number of BONGS on the hour, every hour. That’s all that the account tweets…no replies, no retweets…and yet it has more than 430,000 followers.
Is the Light On?
When the Ayrton Light is illuminated above the clock face, that means parliament is in session.
The Latin words beneath the clock face read Domine Salvam Fac Reginam Nostram Victoriam Primam. The phrase means, “O Lord keep safe our Queen Victoria the First”.
Big Ben’s chimes first aired internationally in 1932 during King George V’s Christmas Broadcast.
Big Ben is often featured in films. The earliest recorded film cameo was Stage Fright in 1950. It’s appeared in many other movies, including 28 Days Later (2003), V for Vendetta (2006), Spectre (2015) and London Has Fallen (2016). Plus the big tower features in 17 Disney films!
Who Can Tour Big Ben?
As of 2010, only residents of the UK can tour the tower. And even the British must be sponsored by a member of parliament. Tourists are no longer allowed inside.
During its 161 years, Big Ben developed a slight tilt. The clock tower leans about a foot and a half off center, pointing slightly northwestward. The cause of the lean? The London clay beneath the tower is drying out.
Big Ben is currently undergoing renovations. When I visited in 2017, scaffolding surrounded the tower and remains in place today.
The clock was dismantled, piece by piece, cleaned and repaired. Architects are modernizing the tower, making it more energy efficient and adding an elevator, a kitchen and a toilet. Until that work is completed in 2021, Big Ben chimes only on New Year’s Eve, Remembrance Sunday (a UK holiday) and other special occasions.
A Must See When in London
When my sisters, mother, niece and I visited London, catching a glimpse of Big Ben was high on our list of must sees. Our first day in London, riding on the hop on/hop off bus, Big Ben suddenly came into view. What a thrill to see it. Even surrounded by scaffolding, it looked gorgeous.
The light rain ceased and as the sun peeked out, a rainbow appeared, arcing over Big Ben. We’d see the big clock tower several more times while in the city, however I’ll never forget my first sight of this iconic structure.
Have you seen Big Ben?
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