One of the most famous landmarks in London, England, is the well-known tower clock called Big Ben. It sits at the top of 320 foot high St. Stephen’s Tower and rings out the hours over the Houses of Parliament. Big Ben began counting time on May 31, 1859. Today it is one of the symbols of London which tourists look for when they come to visit the city.
In October of 1834, a great deal of the Palace of Westminster, which is the headquarters of the British Parliament, was destroyed by fire. Afterward, there were plans made for a new palace and a large clock tower. Sir George Airy, who was the royal astronomer, wanted this clock to have pinpoint accuracy as well as checks two times a day with the Royal Greenwich Observatory. To make this possible Airy sought the help of Edmund Beckett Denison, who was an expert in horology or the science of measuring time.
The result was Big Ben, and once they finished building St. Stephen’s Tower, they installed the clock. I would have loved to see the scene as they transported the bell to the tower. It weighed in at over 13 tons and was pulled through the streets of London by 16 horses as people looked on and cheered. After being installed, Big Ben let out its first chimes on May 31, 1959. Unfortunately, the heavy striker cracked the bell, and it took three years before it was corrected, and the clock could strike again. A lighter hammer replaced the heavy striker, and the bell could rotate so that the hammer always hit another spot, but the crack itself never got repaired.
For those of you who are a bit confused here, you probably are thinking like I am. I have always believed that the whole clock was called Big Ben right from the start. However, the bell was “Big Ben” at first and only, later on, referred to the whole clock. The accurate timekeeping of Big Ben gets regulated by coins placed in a stack on its huge pendulum to make sure that the clock hands move steadily at all times. There are four clock faces each one of them 23 feet across, and at night they are illuminated. Above Big Ben, a light lights up so that the public knows when Parliament is in session.
Knowing Big Ben can be seen from many points in London and, of course, heard when it strikes the funniest story I ever heard was the one a lady from Riga, Latvia, told about returning from the states and stopping in London to change planes. She found out that she would have to take her luggage and then wait for the next flight. However, she was determined to see Big Ben. I forgot why specifically this attracted her, but it did. So bound and determined, she and her luggage hit the streets of London. You would think she would flag down a taxi or walk about looking upward, but she did none of these things. She walked around the streets, stopping everyone and anyone she could to say, “Big Ben”. She did not speak perfect English and had been visiting Latvian friends in the states. She drew a lot of attention. Finally, a guy with a crazy hairdo stopped and said, “By Jove, lady, look up.” She looked up, and she was standing right across from Big Ben.
I once met a woman who was from Austria. “I came to London to specifically see Big Ben,” she said, “We have Cafe Central in Vienna, and the UK has Big Ben.” Established in 1876, Cafe Central is Vienna’s most attractive coffeehouse where some of the greatest poets, writers, and philosophers have stopped for coffee, cake, and cigar.