England - Big Ben

    

Big Ben, situated at the Palace of Westminster, is one of the best known icons of London, and has been voted the Most Iconic Film Location in London. The clock, on its own, has been working since May 1859.

Although the name “Big Ben” actually refers to the bell inside the clock tower, which weighs an astounding 13 tons, it has come to refer to the entire clock and clock tower over time. This name came from the commissioner of the bell, Sir Benjamin Hall. It is the world’s largest four-faced chiming clock. Each of the four dials measure 2.1 square metres (or 23 square feet). The minute hand is 4.2 metres long (or 14 feet) and each number is about 61 centimetres (or 2 feet) high. Incredibly, this mammoth creation is a very accurate timekeeper. The tower is 96.3 metres (316 feet) high.

Although a clock tower was originally built at the Palace of Westminster in 1288, the current tower had to be rebuilt after most of this structure was destroyed in a fire in 1834. Augustus Pugin was commissioned to design the clock tower, and he followed a Gothic Revival style. He later claimed that he had never worked harder on any other creation. The bell was from the old Palace of Westminster (before the fire) and was a gift to the Dean of St Paul from William III. However, it was refashioned in 1858 before being hung at the tower. The first time it would echo its chimes would be on 31 December 1923, and the BBC was there to capture it. Thereafter, the BBC would continue to broadcast Big Ben’s bells to indicate the time to its listeners.

Image of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament (London, England).
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament,
London, England.

The clock tower is not technically open to the public; but, residents of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (collectively known as the United Kingdom) are able to arrange tours through their local Member of Parliament. Along the 334-stair climb, these visitors will see some of the prison cells inside the clock tower, which were once used for imprisoning Members of Parliament that had breached privileges extended to parliamentary personalities.

Each of the faces of the clock have a Latin inscription at their base, which, when translated, means “Which means O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First”. The dials are gilded on their surrounds.

The construction of the dial mechanism was assigned to renowned clockmaker Edward John Dent. He died in 1853 and his stepson (Frederick Dent) had to complete the mechanism, which he did the following year. For this creation, Edmund Beckett Denison (one of the designers, along with George Airy) invented the double three-legged gravity escapement, which ensured the best separation between the pendulum and the clock mechanism. The pendulum is just under 4 metres long and weighs 300 kilograms! It has a 2-second beat rhythm. A pile of old pennies on its top keeps the pendulum exactly on time. In fact, as small as it is, the presence of one penny can change the speed of the clock by 0.4 seconds per day. The clock mechanism is situated below the pendulum and weighs 5 tons.

The original Big Ben bell weighed 16 tons. However, when they were trying to install it, it fell and broke. The new bell was made 3 tons lighter. This bell also has a large crack in it. However, it was simply turned and continues to work, crack and all, to this day.


Today, Big Ben is an iconic symbol of London, England and the United Kingdom. It appears in films and on postcards. The clock is also used during New Year Eve broadcasts to indicate the ringing in of the New Year. Its film appearances include:

• Mars Attacks!
• National Lampoon's European Vacation
• Shanghai Knights
• The Avengers
• The Thirty-Nine Steps
• Thunderball