It’s rung through the reign of six different monarchs, 41 prime ministers, featured in hundreds of movies and been blown up by Hollywood at least a dozen times but how well do you really know Big Ben? We’ll wager you knew it was London’s most famous landmark but didn’t know it survived a German aircraft bombing in 1941, chimes out the note ‘E’ (accompanied by G sharp, F sharp, E and B on the quarter), and you’ve probably been calling it the wrong name for years. Still think you’ve heard everything there is to know about the United Kingdom’s beloved clocktower? We’ve cherry-picked some of our favourite interesting facts about Big Ben that are bound to surprise you.
1. It isn’t really called Big Ben
Most people fondly refer to the clock tower as Big Ben, but that’s actually the name of the bell.
The watchtower has had several names. It was initially supposed to be called Royal Victoria. At some time during the Victorian period, Londoners renamed it St Stephen’s Tower after St. Stephen’s Hall, where the House of Commons met until it burned down in 1834. This was never an official title, though history enthusiasts and pub quiz fanatics will often proclaim otherwise. For most of its life, it’s been unimaginatively referred to as the Clock Tower. In 2012, the tower was renamed the Elizabeth Tower to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
It’s widely believed that Big Ben was named after Sir Benjamin Hall. He was the First Commissioner for Works and his name is inscribed inside the bell, so it seems likely. It seems more credible than other suggestions, like being named after Ben Caunt, a champion heavyweight boxer.
2. It travels at the speed of light
Its chime perfectly illustrates the difference between the speed of light and sound. If you stand at the bottom of the tower with a radio and listen to the chimes live, you’ll hear them on the radio before you hear them from the tower – around one-sixth of a second before. That’s because radio waves travel at around 186,000 miles per second, which is also the speed of light. Sound only travels around 0.2 miles per second.
3. It’s not the original bell
Whitechapel Bell Foundry famously made the 2.7-metre bell, but it’s not the same one that was originally planned for London’s most famous landmark.
Actually, the original bell – an impressive 16.5-tonne piece – was created by Warners of Norton, near Stockton-on-Tees in 1856. The bell worked well for months during tests, until Edmund Beckett Denison made an ill-fated decision to add a larger hammer, in order to create a louder sound. It broke three weeks later. The pieces were packaged up and sent to Whitechapel Bell Foundry, who melted it down to create a new 13.5-tonne bell.
Allegedly, it took 32 hours to haul it to the top of the tower. This one cracked too, but they managed to salvage it by replacing it with a hammer half the size and turning it around so the hammer doesn’t hit the crack. There’s still a crack in the bell today.
4. There’s a prison inside it
Clamber up 114 of Big Ben’s steps, around a third of the way up, and you’ll come to the Prison Room. It’s where MPs were imprisoned if they were in breach of codes of conduct. Nobody’s actually hung around here since 1880 when MP Charles Bradlaugh – an atheist – refused to swear allegiance to Queen Victoria on the bible. He spent a night locked up in the tower.
For a long time, people believed the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst was the last person to be kept in Big Ben’s Prison Room, but the Parliamentary Archives have since pooh-poohed this, confirming there is absolutely no evidence suggesting she did.
5. Pennies are important
When the clock was first made, it was famously the most accurate in the world. The secret? A pile of old coins. A stack of pre-decimal pennies were stacked on the pendulum of the clock to act as a weight to keep the clock mechanism regulated. Or at least, they did until very recently. To mark the 2012 London Olympics, three of the ten coins were replaced with a five-pound coin, produced by the Royal Mint, especially for the occasion.
Adding or subtracting coins affects the pendulum’s centre of gravity and the rate at which it swings. If you add a penny to the pendulum, it will change the clock’s speed by around two-fifths of a second every day.
On a semi-related note, there are at least two documented occasions in the 20th century where the clock rang slow. In 1944, a flock of birds rested on the minute hand. They were heavy enough to slow it down. Then in 1962, Big Ben chimed late on New Year’s Eve because of snow.
6. It’s lit
Each clock face – which measures around seven metres (23 foot) – is illuminated by 28 85 watt bulbs that can last up to 60,000 hours. That’s close to seven years. From 1939 to April 1945, the clock dials were unlit to adhere to blackout rules.
You can also tell when parliament is in session by looking at the clock. Just above it, you’ll see the Ayrton Light. If it’s illuminated, they’re inside.
7. It has its own Twitter account
You can follow Big Ben @big_ben_clock. Don’t expect any significant wisecracks or witty repartee here though, it simply tweets the relevant number of bongs every hour.