The Quick 10: Big Ben Turns 150!
On Sunday, everyone's favorite British Bell celebrated its sesquicentennial "“ yup, Big Ben turned 150. We're a little late in wishing it happy anniversary, but better late than never, right? Here are a few birthday facts about Big Ben and her Clock Tower.
1. As inferred above, "Big Ben" doesn't refer to the clock or the tower, but to the bell itself. Ol' Ben weighs 13.7 tons (tonnes, to you Brits) and rings an "E" note when it's struck; the quarter bells strike G#, F#, E and B.
2. We're pretty sure we know whom the bell is named after, but not totally sure. Most likely its named after Sir Benjamin Hall, the First Chief Commissioner for Works who oversaw part if the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament "“ including Big Ben "“ in the 1850s. His name is inscribed on the bell. The story goes that Parliament was having a long session to name the bell when tall Ben Hall stood up and expounded on the matter for a ridiculously long time. When he was done, someone yelled, "Why not call it Big Ben and have done with it?" and the whole House started laughing. But this is just a story "“ there's no documentation to verify it. The other theory is that it's named after Benjamin Caunt, a champion heavyweight boxer of the same era who went by the name "Big Ben of Westminster."
3. There's a Latin inscription under each clock dial. They all say the same thing: "Domine Salvam fac Reginam nostrum Victoriam primam" which means "O Lord, save our Queen Victoria the First."
4. Big Ben and the Liberty Bell are cousins! The Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London made both of them. Interestingly enough, they both cracked pretty quickly. The first Big Ben cracked upon the first use, so Whitechapel used her as scrap metal to make Big Ben #2"¦ which also cracked. But it wasn't Whitechapel's fault "“ the bell wasn't being used as the Foundry had prescribed. A barrister named Edmund Beckett Denison had ordered and used a hammer more than twice the size of the one that the Foundry told him to use, which resulted in the crack. After this second crack, Big Ben was out of commission for four years; the hour was struck on one of the quarter bells instead of on the Great Bell. The Great Bell was moved about an eighth of a turn so the hammer could hit a piece of the bell with no crack in it; it's the bell we hear today. If you've ever noted that the bell chimes with a not-quite-right tone, the crack is the reason.
5. The second bell was too big to fit up the Clock Tower's shaft vertically, so it was turned sideways and winched up. It took about 30 hours to get it into place.
6. Here's what it looks like chiming.
7. Despite a very impressive history of being almost perfectly on time, even after a bomb struck it during WWII, Big Ben and the clock have fallen silent several times throughout history. A few of these instances include:
"¢ For two years during WWI, it was silenced as so not to attract attention from the German zeppelins.
"¢ In 1962, heavy snow accumulation on the clock's hands made it ring in the New Year about 10 minutes late.
"¢ In 1949, a flock of starlings decided the minute hand would make a good perch. Their combined weight slowed the hand by 4.5 minutes.
8. In 1980, the BBC famous for their April Fool's Day jokes, announced that the clock was going digital and offered to give the minute and hour hands away to the first listener who called into the program. Not only were people not fooled, they weren't even amused. The BBC later apologized for such a distasteful joke.
9. The Tower is not open to the general public, but every now and then, the press and some VIPs are escorted to the top. They have to be willing to climb 334 steps, though "“ there's no elevator.
10. Big Ben has been voted the Most Iconic London Film location and the most popular landmark in the United Kingdom. People know Big Ben and its history so well that when a promotional poster for 2008's Sweeney Todd included a foggy image of the Clock Tower in the background, they cried foul. Sweeney Todd, you see, was set in the early 19th century, and since Big Ben and the tower weren't around until the late 1850s, it wasn't historically accurate.
Perhaps this makes me hopelessly uncultured, but I can't see the Clock Tower without thinking, "Hey look kids! There's Big Ben, and there's Parliament!" "Kids... Big Ben. Parliament, again."