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History of Big Ben

On the night of the 16th of October, 1834 the old Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire. It is said that Charles Barry, an architect, was returning to London from Brighton, where he had designed a church, saw the glow of the fire in the distance and discovered that the Houses of Parliament were on fire. Following the destruction of the buildings, a competition was launched for design suitable for the new Palace. Charles Barry’s design won.

Charles Barry’s design incorporated a clock tower. The dials were to be thirty feet in diameter, the quarter chimes were to be struck on eight bells, and the hours were to be struck on a 14 ton bell. Barry invited Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy, a clockmaker of reputation, to submit a design and price for constructing such a clock. No doubt Vulliamy was pleased to be the clockmaker of choice for what was then to be the largest clock in the world, but other enterprising firms were not happy with the manner in which they had no opportunity to compete for the contract. Subsequently, the Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy, was appointed as referee for the new clock and produced a specification in 1846. A key requirement of the specification was that the clock was to strike the first blow of each hour correct to one second in time. Tenders were invited and were received from three makers, Dent, Vulliamy and Whitehurst.

It was clear that Airy favoured Dent, with whom he had worked on the development of the chronometer. In 1849 the famous horologist, Edmund Beckett Denison (later Lord Grimthorpe) was appointed co-referee with Airy. Denison was in agreement with Airy that Dent was the maker most capable of constructing the clock and they produced a revised specification and drawings, in respect of which Dent was requested to revise his estimate. In 1852 Dent was awarded the contract.

The first of the difficulties occurred when it was discovered that the architect had failed to make the necessary provision for the clock in the tower. Denison certainly had the ability to propel the project forward, but he lacked any diplomatic skill and the tension which existed between him and Barry precluded any compromise by the architect. It was necessary instead for the clock to be modified so that it would fit within the internal walls.

Edward John Dent died in 1853 and the clock mechanism was completed by his stepson Frederick Rippon (who changed his name to Frederick Dent). In 1854 the mechanism was ready to be installed in the tower but this was not possible as the tower was incomplete. Denison was therefore able to spend a number of years testing out different types of escapement on the mechanism as it operated in Dent’s workshop. It was during this period that he invented the double three-legged gravity escapement which enables the clock to keep such accurate time.

Denison was also invited to produce a specification for, and referee, the casting of the bells. The contract was let to John Warner and Sons who cast the hour bell in 1856. The tower was not yet ready to receive the bell so upon delivery it was mounted in the New Palace Yard where it was struck regularly for the benefit of the public. This bell weighed about 16 tons, which was two tons heavier than intended. To compensate for this, Denison increased the weight of the ball hammer from 4 to 6 cwt. This was not a wise move, and one year later in 1857, the great bell cracked irreparably while being struck by this hammer. Denison proclaimed the casting as faulty but the manufacturers denied this and claimed it was his fault for using too heavy a hammer. George Mears of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was given the contract to recast the bell from the metal of the old in 1858 which he did successfully, producing a bell weighing 13.5 tons which is the one in use today. The four quarter bells were cast by Warners.

The name ‘Big Ben’ was first applied to the original hour bell cast by Warners. There is no firm evidence of the origin of this name, but it may have derived from Sir Benjamin Hall, Commissioner of Works who was involved with the project and who was a man of considerable size. The name was also applied to the recast hour bell and has since come to indicate not just the bell, but also the clock and the clocktower.

Taken from http://www.bigben.freeservers.com/history.html


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