Big Ben, the clock that sits atop Elizabeth Tower at the north end of Westminster Palace in London, is one of the world’s most famous clocks. Built in 1859, the clock has run more or less continuously for 156 years.
The “Westminster chimes” are so well known that the sound has been incorporated into many doorbells and the clock is visible around a large part of the city of London.
While the clock’s lights were turned out during both World War I and World War II, the clock ran continuously through both wars, and did not have a catastrophic failure of any component until 1976, when part of the chiming mechanism broke, leaving the clock inoperable for nearly a month during the next nine months.
Big Ben’s sight and sounds are simply part of British life, and both are something that tourists expect to see and hear when they visit. Unfortunately, Big Ben is going to be silent for the next four years.
Both the clock itself and the tower that contains it are due for repairs, and the bells of the clock are being shut down for the next four years out of consideration for the workmen who will have to work in, on, and around the clock tower on a daily basis.
The clock chimes every 15 minutes, and if you happen to be inside the tower at the time, the sound is quite loud. In addition, the building itself needs repairs and updating the clock tower is something that hasn’t been done in more than 30 years.
During this time, the clock will be disassembled, cleaned, and repaired, though authorities are promising that at least one clock face will be visibly functional during this time. While the clock mechanism will be disassembled and non-functional, an electric motor will power the hands during this time, giving passers by at least the impression that the clock is working.
The chimes will continue to operate for important functions, such as New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Day, a day in November that commemorates those who died during the two World Wars.
Given the time that it was built and the size of the timepiece, Big Ben is remarkably accurate, and its accuracy is said to be within 7 seconds per day. The clock can be adjusted via an ingenious means – a stack of pennies sits atop the clock’s 660 pound pendulum, and adding or removing a single penny can adjust the clock’s speed by roughly a half a second per day.
There is some debate as to whether “Big Ben” refers to the clock tower, the clock itself, or simply the 13 1/2 ton bell that rings every quarter hour. Not only that, but no one is sure as to why the clock is referred to as “Big Ben” in the first place or who Ben might have been.
Regardless, the clock has long been a fixture in Britain, and tourists and locals will have to learn to make do without the sounds of this classic piece of timekeeping for the next four years. After that, the clock will likely run well for decades more to come.