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.

11 Fascinating Facts About Mad Max

Mel Gibson stars in George Miller's Mad Max (1979).
Mel Gibson stars in George Miller's Mad Max (1979).
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

What began as director George Miller's ambitious action film about a solitary cop (Mel Gibson) on a mission to take down a violent biker gang has evolved into a post-apocalyptic sensory overload of a franchise that now has four films to its credit—Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)—and additional sequels in the works. So let's obsess over Miller’s masterpieces even more with these 11 things you might not know about the franchise.

1. Director George Miller worked as a doctor to raise money for Mad Max.

Mel Gibson in Mad Max (1979)
Mel Gibson in Mad Max (1979).
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Since the film only had a budget of $350,000, Miller scraped together extra money as an emergency room doctor to keep the movie going. “It was very low budget and we ran out of money for editing and post-production, so I spent a year editing the film by myself in our kitchen, while Byron Kennedy did the sound,” Miller told CraveOnline. “And then working as an emergency doctor on the weekends to earn money to keep going. I’d got my best friend, and friends of friends of friends of his, and Byron ditto, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, we made a film and it won’t cut together and we’re going to lose all their money.’”

Miller’s medical training is all over the film: Max Rockatansky is named after physician Carl von Rokitansky, a pathologist who created the Rokitansky procedure, a method for removing organs in an autopsy.

2. Mel Gibson went to the Mad Max audition to accompany his friend, not for the part.

Gibson was black and blue after a recent brawl with “half a rugby team” when his friend asked him to drop him off at his Mad Max audition. Because the agency was also casting “freaks,” they took pictures of Gibson, who was simply waiting around, and asked him to come back when he healed. When he did, Miller gave him the role on the spot. In a clip for Scream Factory, Gibson recalled the moment: “It was real weird. [Miller] said, ‘Can you memorize this?’ and it was like two pages of dialogue with a big speech and stuff. I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I went into the other room and just got a gist of what it was and I came out and just ad-libbed what I could remember. I guess they bought it.”

3. George Miller paid Mad Max crew members in beer.

With barely enough money to finish the original film, Miller offered to pay ambulance drivers, a tractor driver, and some of the bikers on set with “slabs” (Australian for a case of 24 cans) of beer, according to The Guardian.

4. Real-life motorcycle club the Vigilanties played Toecutter’s gang for Mad Max.

Forget the money required to train stuntmen; Miller and crew hired real bikers to professionally ride into production. In an interview with Motorcyclist Online, actor Tim Burns said about working with them: “[The Vigilanties] all wanted to ride the bikes as fast as possible, as often as possible, by their nature. Their riding was individually and collectively superb.” Additionally, stuntman Dale Bensch, a member of The Vigilanties, recalled seeing the ad for the shoot at a local bike shop, and took a moment to clarify a mishap that had happened during production. Bensch said, “There’s an urban myth that a stuntman was killed, and that was me. The scariest thing was dropping the bike on that bridge. They took the speedo and tach off because they didn’t want to damage more than they had to. They wet the surface to make it easier, but I hung onto the bike too long and it flipped me over with it; that’s why it looked bad. But it’s a famous scene, so it worked out all right!”

5. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior was inspired by the oil crises of the 1970s.

During an interview with The Daily Beast, Miller discussed the making of The Road Warrior. Of its inspiration, he said, “I’d lived in a very lovely and sedate city in Melbourne, and during OPEC and the extreme oil crisis—where the only people who could get any gas were emergency workers, firemen, hospital staff, and police—it took 10 days in this really peaceful city for the first shot to be fired, so I thought, ‘What if this happened over 10 years?’”

6. Mel Gibson only had 16 lines of dialogue in The Road Warrior.

Upon Fury Road’s release in 2015, social media lit up with complaints that Tom Hardy was underutilized, only there to grunt and utter a couple of one-liners. But just to remind you, in Mad Max 2, Mel Gibson only has 16 lines of dialogue in The Road Warrior.

On his use of sparse dialogue, Miller told The New York Times, “Hitchcock had this wonderful saying: ‘I try to make films where they don’t have to read the subtitles in Japan.’ And that was what I tried to do in Mad Max 1, and I’m still trying to do that three decades later with Fury Road.”

7. Mel Gibson says The Road Warrior is his favorite movie in the original trilogy.

Once upon a time Mel Gibson enthusiastically spoke about Beyond Thunderdome, telling Rolling Stone, "[The films are] a sort of cinematic equivalent to rock music. It's something to do with the nihilistic sentiments of the music of the ’80s—which can't continue. I say, let's get back to romanticism. And this film [Thunderdome] is actually doing that. It's using that nihilism as a vehicle, I think, to get back to romance.”

Years later, he told Playboy what he really thought of the films, namely that The Road Warrior was his favorite. “It still holds up because it’s so basic,” Gibson said. “It’s about energy—it didn’t spare anyone: people flying under wheels, a girl gets it, a dog gets it, everybody gets it. It was the first Mad Max, but done better. The third one didn’t work at all.”

8. Beyond Thunderdome was inspired by Lord Of The Flies.

Mel Gibson and Tina Turner in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).
Mel Gibson and Tina Turner in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).
Warner Home Video

Even though Miller and his producers were on the fence about a third Mad Max, they couldn’t help but give in. "George was sitting and talking to me about … quantum mechanics, I think," Miller’s co-writer Terry Hayes recalled to Rolling Stone. "The theory of the oscillating universe. You could say he's got a broad range of interests. And I said something about ‘Well, if there was ever a Mad Max III ...' And he said, 'Well, if there was ...'"

In a 1985 interview with Time Out, Miller recalled the story himself. “We were talking one day and Terry Hayes started talking about mythology and how where people are short on knowledge, they tend to be very big on belief. In other words, they take a few fragments of knowledge and, if you take like the Aboriginal tribes of Australia, they just take simple empirical information and using those little bits of the jigsaw construct very elaborate mythological beliefs, which explain the whole universe,” Miller said. “Terry was saying if you had a tribe of kids after the apocalypse who had only a few fragments of knowledge, [they would construct] a mythological belief as to what was before. And what would happen if Max or someone like that [came in] ... and it kicked off the idea of kids who were Lord of the Flies-type kids, and that led to this story.”

9. Tina Turner was cast in Beyond Thunderdome because of her positive persona.

According to Rolling Stone, Tina Turner beat out Jane Fonda and Lindsay Wagner for the role of Aunty Entity. On her casting, Miller told Time Out, “One of the main reasons we cast Tina Turner is that she’s perceived as being a fairly positive persona. You don’t think of Tina Turner as someone dark. You think of the core of Tina Turner being basically a positive thing. And that’s what we wanted. We felt that she might be more tragic in that sense. But more importantly [when] we actually wrote the character, as a shorthand way of describing the character we said someone ‘like Tina Turner’—without even thinking of casting her. We wanted a woman ... we wanted someone who had a lot of power, charisma, someone who would hold a place like that together—or build it in the first place. And we wanted someone who was a survivor.”

10. Mad Max characters’ names hint at their backstories.

One of the most peculiar quirks of Miller’s franchise has to be his bizarre character names. In an interview with Fandango, Miller explained exactly how he comes up with them: “One of the things is that everything in the story has to have some sort of underlying backstory. Not just every character, but every vehicle, every weapon, every costume—and the same with the language. So [the concept] was always found objects, repurposed. Immortan Joe is a slight adjustment to the word 'immortal.' The character Nux says 'mcfeasting' instead of using the word 'feasting,’” Miller explained, adding that his favorite name of all is Fury Road’s The Dag (played by Abbey Lee). “In Australia, the dag is sort of a goofball-type.”

11. George Miller is a proud feminist.

Director George Miller, recipient of the Feature Film Nomination Plaque for “Mad Max: Fury Road," poses in the press room during the 68th Annual Directors Guild Of America Awards at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on February 6, 2016 in Los Angeles
George Miller poses with the Feature Film Nomination Plaque for Mad Max: Fury Road during the 68th annual Directors Guild Of America Awards in 2016.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Perhaps evidenced by Charlize Theron’s scene-stealing role as Imperator Furiosa, Miller is a proud, outspoken feminist. He told Vanity Fair, “I’ve gone from being very male dominant to being surrounded by magnificent women. I can’t help but be a feminist.” That female influence even stretched behind the scenes, with Miller asking his wife Margaret Sixel to edit Fury Road. “I said, ‘You have to edit this movie, because it won’t look like every other action movie,” Miller recalled. Moreover, feminist activist Eve Ensler also consulted on the film to offer, according to Ensler herself, “perspective on violence against women around the world, particularly in war zones.”

10 Trailblazing Facts About Susan B. Anthony

Scewing, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Scewing, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

When people think of the suffrage movement, Susan B. Anthony is one of the names that immediately comes to mind. Although she didn't live long enough to vote (legally, at least), her contributions to women’s rights were part of a chain of events that culminated in the Nineteenth Amendment. On the occasion of her 200th birthday on February 15, 2020, here are a few facts you might not know about Anthony’s life and legacy.

1. Susan B. Anthony was born into a family of abolitionists.

A large house
Susan B. Anthony's childhood home, photographed in 1897.
Internet Archive Book Images, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions

Susan Brownell Anthony was born into a Quaker family in Adams, Massachusetts, on February 15, 1820. She was the second of seven children, and her entire family was full of activists. Anti-slavery meetings were eventually held at their farm every Sunday, and her father became friends with prominent abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. These experiences shaped her views on equality, and some of her earliest activist work was in support of the abolitionist movement.

2. Susan B. Anthony was a teacher for 10 years.

Susan B. Anthony in her younger years
Susan B. Anthony in her younger years
Wikimedia/NYPL Digital Gallery // Public Domain

Teaching was one of the few professions open to women of Anthony's era. She taught from 1839 to 1849, eventually becoming principal of the girls' department at Canajoharie Academy in upstate New York. During her decade as a teacher, she spoke publicly about the need for higher pay for female teachers, as well as more professional opportunities for women.

3. Susan B. Anthony was BFFs with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in 1870

A mutual acquaintance, Amelia Bloomer, introduced Anthony to Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1851. You could say it was friendship at first sight. Stanton later said of her first impression of Anthony, "I liked her thoroughly, and why I did not at once invite her home with me to dinner, I do not know." More than pals, they were also close collaborators with similar views. Together, they would eventually found the National Woman Suffrage Association and also start up a women's rights newspaper called The Revolution. Although their personal lives were very different, they found a way to use it to their advantage. Anthony, who never married or had children, was free to attend rallies and speaking engagements across the country. Stanton had seven children, so she wrote from home as a means of influencing the movement.

4. Susan B. Anthony's first public speech was about the dangers of alcohol.

Susan B. Anthony
Library of Congress/Wikimedia // No known restrictions

Anthony didn’t attend her first women's rights convention until she was in her thirties. Before that, she was active in the temperance movement, which advocated stronger liquor laws and preached the dangers of heavy drinking. She gave her first public speech at a Daughters of Temperance event, but when she was denied the right to speak at a Sons of Temperance convention a few years later, she and Stanton decided to form their own Women's State Temperance Society. They launched a petition to get the state legislature to limit the sale of liquor, but it was revoked because most of the signers were women and children. Anthony and Stanton realized they’d never be taken seriously until women gained the right to vote, so their priorities started to shift around this time.

5. Susan B. Anthony cut her hair and dressed differently to prove a point.

Amelia Bloomer in the outfit she designed, with
Amelia Bloomer in the outfit she designed, with "bloomers"
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many activists and suffragists argued that women should be free to wear less restrictive clothes than the corsets and heavy underskirts that dominated in those days. To prove their point, many women wore trouser-like bloomers (named for Amelia Bloomer, who advocated them) under their skirts. Following in the footsteps of Stanton, Anthony cut her long, brown hair and started wearing bloomers, albeit somewhat reluctantly. She was ridiculed for her new look, and ultimately decided that the negative attention detracted from the message she wanted to convey. She reverted to her old ways after a year.

6. Susan B. Anthony believed that riding bicycles was one of the best ways to fight the patriarchy.

Women cyclists
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Bicycles were kind of a big deal for women in the 19th century. The machines gave women a sense of independence and mobility that they hadn't enjoyed before, allowing them to leave their houses without having to ask their husbands for a ride. As Anthony once put it, "I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammeled womanhood."

7. Susan B. Anthony opposed the Fifteenth amendment.

Susan B. Anthony
Susan B. Anthony circa 1890
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the biggest criticisms lobbed against Anthony and Stanton is that they didn’t support the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote. The pair were upset that the amendment didn't include women, so they splintered from other suffragist groups and formed their own National Woman Suffrage Association. "There was a battle among abolitionists … between having a Fifteenth Amendment that gave black men the vote or holding out for a suffrage amendment that granted the vote to all adult Americans," Lori D. Ginzberg, author of a biography about Stanton, told NPR. Anthony and Stanton opted for the latter, and their decision has been the subject of controversy ever since.

8. Susan B. Anthony was jailed for voting.

A monument at the site where Anthony voted, illegally, in the 1872 election
A monument at the site where Anthony voted, illegally, in the 1872 election

Anthony and 15 other women showed up at the polls to vote in the presidential election of 1872, which pitted Horace Greeley against the incumbent, Ulysses S. Grant. Considering that women were barred from voting at the time, this was a symbolic gesture as well as an act of civil disobedience. (But for what it's worth, Anthony voted for President Grant.) When Anthony was later politely asked by an officer to come down to the precinct to face arrest, she demanded that she be "arrested properly" in the same way a man would be arrested. This request was granted, but her trial wasn’t exactly fair. She wasn't permitted to testify, and the judge instructed the jury to find her guilty. Anthony was ultimately handed a fine of $100, which she refused to pay. Although her actions greatly influenced the suffrage movement, she never did have the chance to vote legally. The Nineteenth Amendment passed 13 years after her death.

9. Susan B. Anthony's face was almost carved into Mount Rushmore.

Workers construct George Washington's image on Mount Rushmore
Rise Studio, Rapid City, S. Dak, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

In 1937 Congress considered adding Anthony's face to the famed mountain after the Washington and Jefferson portions were completed. However, that idea was scrapped after the House Appropriations Committee said the funds must only be used to complete the sculptures that were already underway (which, at that time, included the Lincoln and Roosevelt sections).

10. Susan B. Anthony was the first woman to appear on circulating U.S. currency.

Susan B. Anthony on the one-dollar coin
Alex Bergin, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The U.S. Treasury Department decided to set a new precedent by putting Anthony's face on a one-dollar coin starting in 1979. However, it looked a little too much like a quarter and cash registers didn’t have a designated space for them, so the coin wasn't widely circulated. Anthony may get a second chance, though, when she appears on the back of the redesigned $10 bill. (The timeline for the redesign, announced in 2016, is currently unclear.) Other influential women expected to appear on the redesigned $10 include Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, and Alice Paul.

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