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May 31, 2024 10 mins

On this day in 1859, the world famous Big Ben clock bell rang out over London for the first time. 

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
This Day in History Class is a production of iHeartRadio.
Hello and Welcome to This Day in History Class, a
show that turns back the clock of history every day
of the week. I'm Gabe Lucier and today we're looking
at the story behind one of England's most beloved landmarks,

the ever reliable and instantly recognizable Big Ben. The day
was May thirty first, eighteen fifty nine, the world famous
big Ben clock bell rang out over London for the

first time. Although it's now one of the city's most
popular tourist attractions, many visitors don't realize that the name
big Ben originally applied only to the massive bell at
the top of the tower, and not to the tower
itself or even to its clock, of which have their
own official names. For most of its existence, the three

hundred and twenty foot high tower was known simply as
the Clock Tower, but in twenty twelve it was renamed
Elizabeth Tower in honor of Queen Elizabeth the Seconds Diamond Jubilee.
As for the four sided clock that adorns the tower's peak,
its official moniker is the Great Clock of Westminster, named
for the district of central London where it resides. All

that said, Big Ben is a much catchier and friendlier
name for a landmark, so most people now use it
to refer to the entire structure, tower clock and all
the true Big Ben, also known as the Great Bell,
is the largest of the clock's five chimes. It stands
more than seven feet tall, measures nine feet in diameter,

and weighs approximately fourteen tons. It's surrounded by four smaller
quarter bells, which chime by themselves every fifteen minutes. Then
at the stroke of each hour, Big Ben rings out
alongside them, with the number of chimes indicating the current hour.
For example, here's what five o'clock sounds like. Now that

you're better acquainted with Big Ben, you may be wondering
where its name came from. I mean, the big part
is self explanatory, but who is Ben. The identity of
the bell's namesake is still up for debate, but there
are two main contenders. The first is Benjamin Kant, a
champion heavyweight boxer of the nineteenth century who was said

to be the largest in his field, just like Big
Ben the bell. The second, more likely answer is that
the bell took its name from Sir Benjamin Hall, a
lanky civil engineer and politician who was known for giving
long winded speeches. As London's Commissioner of Works, Hall oversaw
the final stages of the tower's construction, including the installation

of its great bell, and while there is no official
record of the bell's naming, it's worth noting that Hall's
name is literally inscribed on it. Still, no matter who
it's named for, Big Ben is by far the most
famous bell to ever hang over the Palace of Westminster,
the headquarters of the British Parliament. However, it wasn't the

first bell to take up residents there. Roughly six hundred
years before Big Ben's first chime, a different tower is
said to have stood in the same location. Just like
the present structure, it had a built in clock with
a great bell to toll the hours. Some say the
bell was called Edward, possibly after King Edward the First,

but it eventually came to be known as Old Tom. Unfortunately,
the original clock tower was poorly maintained, and after several
stalled plans for renovations, Tom was taken down and gifted
to Saint Paul's Cathedral, only to be broken on the
way there. The tower itself is believed to have been

demolished in the early seventeen hundreds, leaving the Houses of
Parliament without a public clock for more than a century.
Plans to build a replacement didn't come together until eighteen
thirty four, when a fire destroyed most of the palace grounds.
This prompted the British government to solicit design for a
new Palace of Westminster, with architect Charles Berry's submission eventually

chosen as the winner. Funnily enough, Barry's initial designs didn't
include a clock tower, but after consulting with fellow architect
Augustus Pugin, he decided to add one in the final draft.
He also hired Pugin to help achieve the intricate Gothic
Revival look that he had in mind for the tower,

knowing that Pugin had designed many beautiful churches in the
same style. Construction of the new Palace of Westminster began
in eighteen forty, with the foundation for the clock tower
laid three years later. By that point, the final design
of the clock had yet to be worked out, so
another competition was held to see who would build it.

Royal astronomer Sir George Airy was tasked with judging the submissions,
but because of his strict requirements for the clock's accuracy,
it took him seven years to declare a winner. In
eighteen fifty two, Airy approved the designs of Edmund Beckett
Denison and hired clockmaker Edward John Dent to bring them

to life. Sadly, Dent passed away just one year into
the project, but his step son Frederick Dent was able
to complete the clock mechanism in eighteen fifty four. Two
years after that, the first big Ben bell was cast
in County Durham, but it developed a four foot long
crack during testing and had to be replaced. The second

big Ben was cast by a different manufacturer and fared
much better during testing. In April of eighteen fifty eight,
it was transported from East London to New Palace Yard
on a carriage pulled by sixteen white horses. The next
step was to raise Big Ben to its permanent home
in the belfry, but that proved easier said than done.

It was only after the bell was on site that
workers realized it was too why to be lifted vertically
through the building's narrow stairwell. Thankfully, with some careful angling,
a strong winch and a lot of trial and error,
the workers managed to hoist the bell to its two
hundred foot high perch, a task that took thirty full

hours in total. It took another month to get the
clockwork running smoothly, but at last, on May thirty first,
eighteen fifty nine, Big Ben chimed over London for the
very first time. The bell kept up its hourly routine
for the next four months, but disaster struck again when
the second Big Ben also developed a crack. The bell

fell silent for the next four years while experts tried
to work out what went wrong and what to do
about it. Once again, it was Sir George Airy to
the rescue. At his suggestion, the bell's hammer was replaced
with a smaller, lighter version than the bell itself was
rotated ninety degrees so that the cracked portion wouldn't be
struck again. Airy also arranged for a small square to

be cut out of the bell to prevent the crack
from spreading. These inexpensive, low tech solutions effectively saved Big
Ben from the scrap yard, and the same could be
said for the Great Clock of Westminster. Its fourteen foot
long pendulum can sometimes swing too fast or too slow
based on a variety of environmental factors. So to help

ensure a steady swing rate and accurate timekeeping, a stack
of old British pennies was placed a top the pendulum
to balance its center of mass. In most cases, this
would have been accomplished with clockweights, but I guess the
clockmaker ran out and had the substitute heavy coins instead.
Whatever the rationale, the tradition continues to this day, even

though the penny itself was demonetized in nineteen seventy one.
Strange or not, the system does work, as adding or
removing a penny can alter the clock speed by two
fifths of a second over the course of twenty four hours.
Thanks to ingenious fixes like that Big Ben, the tower
clock and bell have continued to function since eighteen fifty nine.

There have been a few exceptions along the way, thanks
to World War II bombings, blackout regulations, mechanical failures, and
structural renovations, but Big Ben always rebounds eventually and never
stays silent for long. I'm gay, blues gay, and hopefully

you now know a little more about history today than
you did yesterday. If you'd like to keep up with
the show. You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and
Instagram at TDI HC Show, and if you have any
comments or suggestions, feel free to send them my way
by writing to This Day at iHeartMedia dot com. Thanks

to Kasby Bias for producing the show, and thanks to
you for listening. I'll see you back here again tomorrow
for another day in History class.

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