Big Ben’s Big Secrets

Is Big Ben really named Elizabeth? Could it tip over someday? How does it keep time so accurately? 

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Close your eyes and think of London. You might see the skyline with the London Eye and Shard. You might see red double-deckers, red phone booths or red suits marching through Buckingham Palace.

One thing’s for sure: when you close your eyes and think of London, you absolutely, definitely are picturing that giant clock we all know as Big Ben.

Photo c/o Alyssa Medina
Photo c/o Alyssa Medina

What secrets could such a distinguished work of architecture be hiding? For one, Big Ben isn’t the clock’s name, which is like learning that tomatoes are actually a fruit or that Bob Saget isn’t a family man.What else should you know before you pose for a duck face with this icon? Here are 9 of Big Ben’s Biggest Secrets:

 

1. You can’t see Big Ben because it’s the bell inside, not the tower or clock. That’s right, your life is a lie.

2. He is actually a she. The tower itself, the one from every establishing shot of London in any movie ever, was actually called “Clock Tower” until it was changed to “Elizabeth Tower” in 2012. This is where I add some Buzzfeed line about you picking up your exploded mind or something. Don’t do that. Just enjoy the knowledge and keep your brain right where it is. And know that what you thought was Big Ben is actually a tower named Elizabeth.

Photo c/o Brie Zajac
Photo c/o Brie Zajac

3. The origins of the name are uncertain. Does “Big Ben” refer to Sir Benjamin Hall, London Commissioner at time of construction? Or does it allude to the hulking powerhouse that was heavyweight boxer Benjamin Caunt? The answer is as foggy as the city it lives in.

4. It had an on-again, off-again relationship with being alive. The tower was part of an 1854 reconstruction on the Palace of Westminster after it was destroyed by a fire, rendering it fairly young on the history spectrum.

Intense, meticulous craftsmanship went into the new design. After Benny-Boy finally rang its first chimes in 1859, it cracked just two months later. Another three years passed before a lighter hammer was installed, and Big Ben sang loud once more.

BUT WAIT! In the wake of World War I, the tower shut down business for two years to hide from German zeppelins. In WWII, Big Ben kept ringing, though the clock face wasn’t illuminated at night to hide from German pilots. Fair enough.

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5. It’s big. Like, 16 tons big. Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t where Roethlisberger got his nickname (for that, see #4).

The clock face boasts some impressive numbers to it. The minute hands are 14 feet long; the hour hands, nine feet.

As for Elizabeth Tower? It’s the second-largest four-faced clock tower in the world. (The first largest is in Minneapolis, of all places.)

6. It’s loud. Big Ben can reportedly be heard from 5 miles away. 

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7. It’s accurate. Once again, not how Roethlisberger got his nickname. The clock is famous for its consistent accuracy, monitored by a stack of pennies on the pendulum. Just fractions of a second determine whether a penny is added or removed.

8. There’s a bunch of glass. 1,248 pieces, that is. Each clock face contains 312 panes, which must be (carefully) cleaned every five years.

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9. IT’S LEANING. EVERYBODY PANIC!!! Okay, no, wait. It’s leaning a little bit, but nowhere near Pisa or intoxicated-buddy-on-the-shoulder level. The top of Elizabeth Tower is about 9 inches northwest of the bottom, which exceeds the maximum leanage amount by about 7.8 inches.

Alright so it leans a lot a bit. Whatever.

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Want to see Big Ben yourself? Good luck with that, but you can see Elizabeth Tower if you head to London! We’ll take you there on London and Paris Escape, London, Paris & Rome, London, Paris & Barcelona, Amsterdam, Paris & London, London and Scotland EscapeThe Grand Tour of Europe, Highlights of Europe, Europe from London to Lisbon and European Road Trip.