Big Ben history begins with the destruction of the old Palace of Westminster. In 1834, the old palace caught fire, and little was left behind after the embers burned out. Due to the extensive damage, it was decided that a new palace be built, and this palace was to feature a clock tower. Renowned English architect Sir Charles Barry was chosen to head the project, and together with the help of Augustus Pugin, he laid down the framework for what would become England’s most recognizable architectural landmark.
Some of the most popular questions about the structure include how tall is Big Ben and when was Big Ben built? The famous tower on the banks of the River Thames measures 316 feet in height. The faces of the four clocks are an impressive 23 square feet in size, and as for the Great Bell, it stands seven-and-a-half feet tall. As for when Big Ben was built, work on the new Palace of Westminster began with the laying of the foundation stone in 1840. The tower itself was completed in 1858, as is true of the Great Bell that is housed inside. Save for a few breakdowns and outages, it has been keeping time for more than 150 years.
The name "Big Ben" officially refers to the largest bell in the Palace of Westminster’s St. Stephens Tower. Over time, however, the name has come to encompass the entire clock tower. Interesting to point out is the fact that historians aren’t quite sure how the Big Ben appellation originally came into being. Two possibilities remain the most credible. Either the large bell, or the Great Bell, as it is also commonly labeled, was named after the English heavyweight boxing champion of the day, Benjamin Caunt, or after Sir Benjamin Hall, who oversaw the installation of the Great Bell itself.
There’s more to Big Ben history than how it got its name. Several notable figures of the day contributed to the overall project, and they included George Biddell Airy. Airy served as the Astronomer Royal of the UK between the years of 1835 and 1881. He was entrusted with drafting the specification of Big Ben’s famous four-sided clock. Aiding him was an amateur horologist by the name of Edmund Beckett Denison. Denison, who was also a lawyer and an architect, actually designed the mechanism for the tower’s clock. This mechanism helped the timepiece achieve a level of accuracy that many experts of the day thought was unattainable for such a large clock.
The first Great Bell that was constructed for the Big Ben clock tower weighed sixteen tons. John Warner & Sons at Stockton-on-Tees was the company that was responsible for making the bell, and they completed the task on August 6, 1856. Since the tower that was supposed to house the Great Bell wasn’t yet finished, it was set up in the Westminster Palace Yard. The moving of the bell to this site generated a lot of attention. In fact, crowds cheered the procession on as it made its way to the yard. Along the way, this procession crossed both the London Bridge and Westminster Bridge.
While it was being tested in the Palace Yard at Westminster, the original Big Ben bell cracked. Unable to be repaired, it had to be replaced instead. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which is still based in London to this day, was called upon to cast the new bell. It was finished in 1858, and the first time that it rang with the other Great Clock of Westminster bells was on May 31, 1859. Unfortunately, after only two months of service, the new Big Ben bell cracked. The crack wasn’t as severe as the crack in the original bell, however, and after some repairs, the new clock was re-established in the tower.
There are plenty of other interesting facts about Big Ben. When it was cast, for example, it was the biggest bell in all the British Isles. The nearly seventeen-ton bell in St. Paul’s Cathedral overtook that honor in 1881, however. Also interesting to note is the fact that the crack in the bell results in a less-than-perfect tone, and coins are actually used to regulate the pendulum as needed. This pendulum measures thirteen feet in length and weighs nearly 700 pounds.