1858: Manual labor hoists the great hour bell into place high in the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament in London. Some people are already calling the 14.33-ton bell “Big Ben.”
Fire had destroyed most of the ancient Palace of Westminster, seat of the British government, in 1834. Parliament resolved to build a new home for itself, complete with a giant tower. The new Houses of Parliament (still officially the Royal Palace of Westminster), designed by A.W.N. Pugin and Charles Barry, rose in neo-Gothic splendor along the Thames. The building was not completed until 1870.
The giant tower was to have a giant clock (with a 23-foot-diameter face on each of the tower’s four sides) and a giant bell to toll the hours. The clock — with its 14-foot minute hands — was completed in 1854, but the 314-foot-high tower wasn’t ready for it yet.
The first giant bell was cast for the tower at Stockton-on-Tees in 1856 and shipped to Westminster. It was oversize, at 16 tons. Worse, it cracked when they tested it. Back to the drawing board.
More precisely, back to the melting pot. The big bell was broken up, and the pieces taken to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in East London, where Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell had been cast. The metal was melted down and poured into a new mold April 10, 1858.
After extensive testing, the bell was placed on a special trolley and drawn by 16 beribboned horses to Westminster, by way of Southwark on the opposite side of the Thames. Traffic was stopped to accommodate the special cargo. Crowds cheered.
Raising the bell 180 feet up the central shaft of the tower to the clock chamber took 18 hours, spread over two days. Eight men turned a giant windlass hauling a huge, purpose-built, 1,800-foot chain over huge drums. The chains lifted a timber cradle carrying the bell. Guide wheels that ran along restraining timbers within the tower kept the cradle from swinging back and forth.
Despite relying on good old human muscle to lift the bell, the engineers used state-of-the-art lighting: The shaft was fitted with a dozen gas jets.
After reaching the clock chamber, Big Ben was removed from its cradle, turned upright, hauled another 20 feet up to the belfry, and hung. Now the clock mechanism could be installed.
The bell first rang the hours on May 31, 1859, and officially entered service in July.
In September, it cracked. Back to the drawing board — really, this time.
It turned out that a lawyer on the committee had insisted on a bell hammer twice the weight recommended by the foundry. After three years of tinkering and haggling, Big Ben got a lighter hammer. The bell was also rotated one-eighth of a turn, so the hammer hits a different spot. The crack remains, and this kluge gives the bell its imperfect but distinctive tone.
Big Ben is often said to have gotten its name from Sir Benjamin Hall, a man of ample proportions who served as commissioner of works when the clock was built. But that may well be a very urban (or urbane) legend. An official Ministry of Works booklet notes that “Big Ben” Caunt was a 238-pound professional boxer of that era, and his nickname was a popular catchphrase for the heaviest thing in any particular category.
The tower, by the way, is not Big Ben. It’s St. Stephen’s Tower, named for the former royal chapel where the House of Commons met until the 1834 fire. Members of Parliament are still said to be going “to St. Stephen’s” when they are elected to the Commons.
Big Ben has tolled — and told — the hours for a century and a half, more or less, through peace and war, with very occasional interruptions for repairs, cleaning and a few weather-related malfunctions. The striking of the bell has been controlled by electric motor since 1912, but the clock itself is still hand-wound thrice weekly.
Image: This sketch of Big Ben and the bells that strike the quarter-hours appeared in The Illustrated News of the World, Dec. 4, 1858. (Courtesy Love's Guide to the Church Bells of Westminster)
This article first appeared on Wired.com on Oct. 14, 2008.