15 Huge Facts About Big Ben

iStock/mammuth
iStock/mammuth

You may have snapped a photo of England’s most iconic clock or seen it in footage of London, but how well do you really know the United Kingdom’s towering timepiece—which rang out for the first time on May 31, 1859.

1. The name "Big Ben" refers to the clock tower's largest bell, not the Clock or the tower itself. 

At some point, London’s superstar clock tower acquired the nickname Big Ben—a name originally given not to the tower itself or even its clock, but to the largest of the clock’s five bells. Also known as the Great Bell, Big Ben stands more than 7 feet tall, measures 9 feet in diameter, and weighs nearly 14 tons. The E-natural behemoth leads a team of four quarter bells, which chime B-natural, E-natural, F-sharp, and G-sharp tones. 

2. Big Ben's clock 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 a new name—Elizabeth Tower—as part of the celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s 60-year reign. Additionally, the clock itself is named the Great Clock of Westminster. 

3. The bell took its name from one of two famous Bens.

The original “Ben” who lent his name to the bell is a bit of mystery. The prime candidate for the handle’s inspiration is Sir Benjamin Hall, a 19th century engineer and politician who was also a famously large man. As the story goes, Hall gave a longwinded speech on the topic of what the bell should be named, leading a colleague to quip, “Why not call him Big Ben and have done with it?” Hall’s name is inscribed on the bell, which would seem to support this theory. 

The other dominant explanation is that the bell took its name from Benjamin Caunt, a champion heavyweight bare-knuckle boxer of the 19th century. 

4. A lawyer and an astronomer designed the clock movement.

London's Big Ben clock tower
iStock/Moussa81

While you might guess that the English government would have charged top clockmakers with the task of creating such a prominent timekeeper, the pair who actually designed the clock were not trained horologists. Royal Astronomer Sir George Biddell Airy came up with the specifications that the clock had to have, and lawyer, politician, and railway promoter Sir Edmund Beckett Denison designed the movement. 

5. The clockmaker invented a whole new mechanical system for Big Ben.

Airy hired clockmaker Edward John Dent to bring Beckett Denison’s design into reality in 1852, but Dent passed away just one year later before he could finish the job. The project passed to Dent’s stepson, Frederick Rippon Dent. Working from Beckett Denison’s design, Dent built the double three-legged gravity escapement that would become the standard for clock tower design thereafter. 

6. Only residents of the United Kingdom are allowed inside the tower.

Though Big Ben ranks as one of England’s most popular tourist attractions, overseas visitors are not allowed to venture inside the tower. As of 2010, only residents of the United Kingdom can take the tour—and you have to be sponsored by a Member of Parliament of the House of Lords. At the moment, however, none of that really matters: Because of ongoing renovations being made to Elizabeth Tower, all tours have been suspended until at least 2021.

7. Reaching the clock requires a steep climb.

Individuals who are lucky enough to be able to see Big Ben up close face a bit of a climb: There’s no elevator, so the only route to the belfry level is a 334-step spiral stairway. 

8. It took more than a day to haul Big Ben up to the belfry.

If a 334-step hike seems like too much to bear, imagine making the journey with a giant 14-ton bell in tow. It was only after the Great Bell was cast—and then replaced after it cracked during testing—that the men in charge of transporting it to its permanent quarters in the belfry realized that it was just a bit too large for an easy ascent of the building’s narrow stairwell. With some precise angling, winching the mammoth instrument up the 200-foot-high climb was possible, but it wasn’t easy. From start to finish, the job took a full 30 hours

9. The tower leans slightly northwest.

Over its 160 years of keeping an eye on London’s streets, Big Ben has picked up a noticeable tilt. Today, the clock tower leans about a foot and a half off center, pointing northwestward. The main theory for what’s causing the lean is the drying out of the London clay beneath the tower. 

10. A stack of coins keeps the clock on point.

Eschewing high-tech modern methods for timekeeping, Big Ben relies on a far more old-fashioned measure: The lucky penny. Seated perpetually atop Ben’s swinging pendulum is a stack of now discontinued British penny coins. The weight of the stack balances the pendulum’s center of mass, ensuring a steady swing rate and consistent timekeeping. The removal or addition of a coin can alter the clock’s projection by 0.4 seconds per day. In 2009, three of the 10 coins that sit atop the pendulum lost their spot to a five-pound coin celebrating London’s hosting of the 2012 Olympics. 

11. The tower goes incognito during wartime.

Ordinarily, Big Ben is a beacon of English pride with its bright glow and vociferous ring. In times of war, however, the clock tower goes into hiding, dimming its lights and silencing its bells to keep from inviting enemy assault on the Houses of Parliament. Big Ben’s face was dark and its chimes were silent for two years during World War I. During World War II, the clock was dark, but the bell kept ringing. 

12. German bombs couldn't stop the clock from ticking.

Despite efforts to draw attention away from Big Ben, the German military did manage to get the drop on the clock tower. In May of 1941, a Nazi raid on Parliament resulted in the destruction of the House of Commons chamber and damages to Big Ben’s roof and dials. The Commons required total reconstruction, but the clock remained functionally intact throughout the entire ordeal. 

13. The clock didn't fare as well against a flock of birds.

A black and white photo of Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben
iStock/Mohana-AntonMeryl

In 1949, Big Ben would met with an adversary more powerful than the Luftwaffe: A flock of starlings. In August of that year, a group of birds decided the clock’s tremendous minute hand would make a suitable place for an evening perch. The copper appendage attracted so many birds that their collective weight slowed the clockwork by more than four and a half minutes. Management was able to correct this error within a few hours. 

14. The clock faced its first major shutdown in 1976. 

While the bells and lights of Big Ben have taken some breaks over the decades, it took more than 100 years for the clock to have to endure its first significant nonoperational period. In August 1976, general wear and tear of the aging device threw a number of its internal mechanisms into dysfunction, leading to periodic shutdowns for repairs over the next nine months. By May 1977, Big Ben was back in service.

15. Big Ben ceased chiming in 2017.

In late August 2017, Big Ben went silent. The measure was intended to protect workers completing what is intended to be a four-year restoration of both the clock and its surrounding structure. The clock will be dismantled piece by piece, so that its four dials can be cleaned and fixed. Its faces will be temporarily covered, but an electric motor will continue to drive the clock hands so it can keep telling time.

Architects also plan to modernize the clock tower by making it more energy-efficient, and adding an elevator, toilet, and kitchen. But until that work is completed in 2021, Big Ben will still chime only on New Year’s Eve, Remembrance Sunday (a UK holiday that honors veterans), and other special occasions.

This story has been updated for 2019.

Ingenious Moving Tips, According to Twitter

BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images
BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

Whether or not you’ve outsourced the actual loading and unloading of your precious belongings to professional movers, the planning and packing process necessary for any move is enough to make even the most organized individuals contemplate climbing inside a cardboard box themselves.

To resist the urge, Twitter user “Shameless Maya” asked her followers to share their best tips and tricks for her own move—and, as was the case with hotel hacks last month, the Twittersphere rose to the occasion spectacularly. While it might be an exaggeration to say that these hacks will make moving fun, they can definitely help take the edge off your moving-day headache (or backache). Take a look through some of the most ingenious responses below, compiled by Thrillist.

1. Pack your dishes with your clothes.

Wrapping dishes and other fragile items in your sweaters and socks will not only keep you from generating extra waste with newspapers or packing peanuts, it’ll also save you some space. (@yuffieh_)

2. Protect your floors with a set of furniture sliders.

Even if the pros are packing your U-Haul, you will probably move your furniture around your new home while you’re getting set up. Prevent those beloved hardwood floors from getting scratched with these furniture sliders from Amazon. (@GabberWaukee)

3. Save space by packing with vacuum-sealed bags.

It’s impossible to accurately describe the awe you’ll feel—and the space you’ll save—when watching your vacuum-sealed bags shrink before your eyes. Turn your packing party into a consolidation station with this jumbo set from Amazon. (@HunniB_Rose)

4. Use trash bags as bulk garment bags.

Skip the hassle of taking your clothes off their hangers and wrap groups of them in large plastic trash bags. That way, they’ll stay on their hangers whether you’re packing them into boxes or wheeling them out on a portable rack. (@thegirllogan_)

5. Tape loose hardware to its corresponding furniture.

It’s easy to lose screws, washers, and other small hardware during a big move. Instead of throwing everything into a bag and hoping you’ll remember which tiny bits of metal go to what, just duct tape them to their corresponding furniture. (@NebFeminists)

6. Hit up department stores for free cardboard boxes.

Before you splurge on cardboard boxes that you’ll end up throwing out immediately after your move, see if department stores have any that they’d love to get rid of for free. (@jackseve)

7. Ask your local liquor store for special partitioned boxes.

And before you painstakingly wrap each and every glass you own, see if your local liquor store has a stash of those special partitioned cardboard boxes that bottles are often shipped in. (@SuzPageWrites)

8. Invest in a few of IKEA’s giant shopping bags.

Nothing beats IKEA’s big blue reusable shopping bags for transporting oddly shaped items or last-minute things you forgot to pack—they also make great laundry bags if you’re moving to a place without an in-unit washer and dryer. You can get a set of five for $12 from Amazon here. (@PaigeUnabridged)

[h/t Thrillist]

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11 Gifts for the Home Improvement Guru in Your Life

Dia-Grip/Amazon
Dia-Grip/Amazon

Picking out the right gift for the handyperson on your list isn’t always easy. With so many choices out there and price tags that could quickly balloon, it’s important to do your research before making a commitment. Thankfully there are plenty of straight-forward tools and gadgets on the market that any home DIYer would love to have—and they don't have to wreck your holiday budget, either. Check out 11 gift recommendations for the home improvement guru in your life.

1. RAK Magnetic Wristband; $16

The RAK Magnetic Wristband is pictured
Amazon

Losing screws has to be among the biggest pet peeves of any DIYer. This magnetic wristband makes any job significantly less frustrating by keeping fasteners and accessories (screws, bolts, drill bits) within easy reach instead of on the floor or down a drain.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Vampliers; $45

A pair of Vampliers is pictured
Amazon

The unique, toothy design of the Vampliers's jaw makes it far easier to pull and cut wire, and grab hold of any stripped screw, bolt, or nut. For someone doing serious work around the house, this tool could save them a lot of elbow grease.

Buy it: Amazon

3. 5-in-1 Tool Pen; $25

The 5-in-1 Tool Pen from Uncommon Goods is pictured
Uncommon Goods

No matter what kind of job you’re tackling, a pen is mightier than most blunt-force instruments. This multi-use writing utensil allows you to scribble notes, measure levels, check a ruler, deploy a screwdriver, or use it as a stylus.

Buy it: Uncommon Goods

4. Stanley FuBar Demolition Bar; $25

The Stanley FuBar Demolition Bar is pictured
Walmart

Destroy anything—really, anything—with this forceful tool from the good people at Stanley. The pry bar can loosen nearly whatever you need, while the sharp end can do anything from trimming branches to splitting firewood.

Buy it: Walmart

5. General Tools LTM1 Laser Tape Measure; $30

The General Tools LTM1 Laser Tape Measure is pictured
Amazon

See how products measure up with this tape measure that uses a laser to beam to distances up to 50 feet. A conventional 16-foot analog tape measure is also included.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Little Giant Ladder; $229

The Little Giant Ladder is pictured
Amazon

Sometimes a plain ladder just won’t get you where you need to go. The Little Giant is the Swiss Army Knife of steps, allowing for a number of configurations from a 19-foot extension to a footprint that can be set on stairs and other awkward locations.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Dia-Grip Universal Socket Wrench; $18

The Dia-Grip Universal Socket Wrench is pictured
Amazon

No one enjoys searching for the right size socket for the job, so the Dia-Grip makes the choice for you. The socket wrench has steel pins that automatically configure to the bolt or nut you’re trying to attack, taking a lot of the guesswork off the user's plate.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Cartman Bungee Cords; $14

Cartman Bungee Cords are pictured
Amazon

Want to prevent your Christmas tree from ending up as a crumpled pile of broken pine needles in the middle of the highway? These elastic bungee cords allow you to haul items without worrying that they'll topple over or fall off the roof of your car. The 24 cords come in different sizes, so no matter how big of a tree you get this year, you'll still be able to secure it properly.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Rhino Strong Air Wedge; $24

The Rhino Strong Air Wedge is pictured
Amazon

When you need to get a heavy object off the ground for leveling or moving, all you have to do is push these inflatable bladders underneath, then use the hand pump. The resulting wedge can hold up to 300 pounds. Three sizes (small, medium, and large) are included.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Fix It Kit; $30

The Fix-It Kit from Uncommon Goods is pictured
Uncommon Goods

Sometimes you don’t necessarily need a contractor-grade tool set to get a simple job done. Alternately, you may want to keep a small assortment in a utility area or car. That’s where the Fix It Kit comes in. Inside a faux-leather case is a hammer, screwdriver, pliers, a flashlight, and other essentials. It's the perfect gift for someone in need of their first travel tool set.

Buy it: Uncommon Goods

11. Myivell LED Flashlight Glove; $13

The Mylivell LED flashlight glove is pictured
Amazon

Have a hands-on lighting source when working in dark spaces with these gloves. Each one has a small LED light located on the forefinger and thumb to illuminate your project. One size fits all.

Buy it: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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