The Big Ben fell silent from 21st August 2017 for repairs. It will be silent up to 2021 i.e., a period of four years. Conservation work is being carried out on the famous clock of Westminster Abbey. The Big Ben is a nineteenth-century clock housed in the clock tower which is called the Elizabeth Tower. In the 157-year history of the Big Ben, this is the longest time that it would be silent. It fell silent in 2007 and before that for major refurbishments between 1983 and 1985. Dr. Paramita tells us about it, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.
An article in a newspaper in August last year made me realise how lucky I am that I heard the Big Ben’s gong a few days ago in London. Sitting on the south bank of Thames, on that July morning, last year, I was mesmerised with the Big Ben clock. I was enjoying the beauty of the Thames. There was much time for 12 noon. I sat there silently waiting for the clock to strike at 12. I recorded the experience on my mobile camera.
Yes, I felt lucky because Big Ben fell silent from 21st August 2017 for repairs. It will be silent up to 2021 i.e., a period of four years. Conservation work is being carried out on the famous clock of Westminster Abbey. The Big Ben is a nineteenth-century clock housed in the clock tower which is called the Elizabeth Tower. In the 157-year history of the Big Ben, this is the longest time that it would be silent. It fell silent in 2007 and before that for major refurbishments between 1983 and 1985. The Big Ben’s gong would only be heard in major events like the New Year’s Eve. The great bell is actually popularly called Big Ben. It weighs 13.7 tonnes. Apart from the repairing phase, the Big Ben strikes every hour and chimes four times every 15 minutes.
The clock is still telling the time silently and will do so till 2021. The cogs and the hands, as well as the dials, have been removed for cleaning and repairing. A modern electric motor will drive the makeshift clock hands till the clock is reinstated.
Readers, I am sure you will be thrilled to know about some interesting facts about the Big Ben. The Clock Tower which houses the Big Ben clock was named Elizabeth Tower, in 2012, in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. It is believed Big Ben was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, First Commissioner for Works, whose name is inscribed on the bell. The bell was cast by Warners of Norton near Stockton-on-Tees, in August 1856. The bell was originally meant to be called Royal Victoria. The arrival of the bell in London was a cause of great ceremony. It was brought down the Thames by barge and then taken across Westminster Bridge by a carriage drawn by sixteen horses.
The bell cracked while testing, in 1857, so a second replacement bell was cast by George Mears at London Foundry, in April 1858. The bell broke again, in 1859, but the problem was solved when the bell was turned a quarter clockwise and chimed with a lighter hammer. The first chime of Big Ben was on July 11, 1859. The BBC first broadcast the Big Ben’s chimes during a New Year’s Eve radio broadcast, in 1923. The chimes were broadcast internationally, in 1932, during King George V’s Christmas broadcast on the Empire Service.
Interestingly the Big Ben and its chimes illustrate the difference between the speed of light and sound. If you stand below the Elizabeth Tower you will hear the bell’s chimes after one-sixth second after the bell is struck. Before the 9 pm BBC radio news, the Silent Minute was introduced, in 1940. The Big Ben would chime for 60 seconds to encourage people to pray for those on the battlefield. The 150th Anniversary of the Elizabeth Tower, the Great Clock, and the Big Ben was celebrated, in 2009.
So far the Big Ben has rung through the reigns of six monarchs. This will be interesting to music lovers. The musical note the Big Ben makes when struck is E. There are four smaller bells beneath the Big Ben which ring on the ‘quarter hours” They strike the notes G sharp, F sharp, E and B. Each clock dial is illuminated by 28 energy efficient bulbs at 85 watts each. Each bulb has a lifetime of 60,000 hours.
Even the Parliamentary session can be understood by looking at the clock face. Set above it the Ayrton Light is illuminated at that time. Oh yes! There are some Latin words written under the clock face, “Domine Salvam Fac Reginam Nostram Victoriam Pripam,” which means “Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First”.
The clock was designed by Edmund Beckett Denison and Edward Dent. Surprisingly, Beckett Denison trained as a lawyer and not as a clockmaker. The idiom putting a penny on meaning slowing down sprang from the method of fine-tuning the clock’s pendulum.
Last but not the least is that the Elizabeth Tower is one of London’s most enduringly famous film and television stars. It has featured in films like 28 Days Later, V for Vendetta, Doctor Who, Thunder Ball and Mary Poppins. So the Big Ben is one of the most cherished stars of the world.
©Dr. Paramita Mukherjee Mullick
Photos by the author
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Dr. Paramita is a scientist with a doctorate in Genetic Toxicology, an educationist by profession, associated with NABET, GoI organisation, helping in the quality management of schools all over India. An author and poet by passion, she has published four books. She has had numerous book events around the world. Presently a series of competitions of her poems are being held in some schools in Mumbai, where she lives with her husband and daughter.