5 Things You Didn't Know About Big Ben

On May 31, 1859, the most famous clock tower in the world, Big Ben, began ticking for the first time. Read on to learn about the little-known facts concerning Big Ben, which has appeared in numerous movies and is a British landmark known to people around the world.


The Bell in Big Ben Isn’t the Original. # Big Ben is a little larger than it looks in photographs. The tower is 315 feet tall and to arrive at the belfry, people have to trudge up 335 steps. Photo source: Bigstock The original bell was cast by Warners of Norton, weighed 16.5 tons, and was shipped to London to be installed when the clock tower was completed. Testing of the clock went on in the meantime and was fine until the designer, Edmund Beckett Denison, changed the hammer to a much larger one. This decision caused the original bell to break, and the pieces were shipped to a bell foundry in Whitechapel where they were melted down.

The New Bell Was Cast From the Original. # After Westminster Palace burned in 1834, new buildings were constructed for the Houses of Parliament and a clock tower was included in the plans. Photo source: Bigstock The bell made from the melted remains of the original one weighed less at 13.5 tons. When it was time to install it, the bell had to be winched up along the side of the tower so slowly it took 32 hours to reach the top. This bell cracked after about two months and was turned around and a smaller hammer installed, so it remains in service to this day.


The Tower That Houses Big Ben Has a Small Prison Inside. About one-third of the distance up the stairs to the top of the tower is a prison that was used to house Members of Parliament who breached the code of conduct. The last person to be imprisoned there was MP Charles Bradlaugh in 1880. Bradlaugh was an atheist and would not swear his allegiance to Queen Victoria on a bible, so he ended up spending the night in the tower prison.

The Tower Has Gone By Several Names Even though it has assumed the Big Ben moniker, the tower has its own official name. For the bulk of its life, the landmark was known simply as the Clock Tower, but it was commonly referenced (especially by the Victorian press) as St. Stephen’s Tower. In 2012, the structure took on the new name Elizabeth Tower as part of the celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s 60-year reign.

Pennyweights Keep the Clock Accurate. At the time of its construction, the clock in Big Ben was as accurate as you could get around the world. To ensure its continued accuracy, copper pennyweights were placed on the mechanism of the clock. Each pennyweight, whether adding one or subtracting one, changes the accuracy of the clock by 2/5ths of a second.

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