The famous clock tower of the Palace of Westminster houses the bell known as Big Ben, a London landmark for generations.
New: Photos of Big Ben
When most people heat the words "Big Ben" they immediately conjure up an image of the striking Victorian Gothic structure of the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster (the Houses of Parliament). Let's clear up a common misconception first; technically speaking, the name "Big Ben" does not refer to the famous tower, nor to the four huge clock faces of this London landmark; instead, it refers to the largest of the five bells inside the clock tower, whose chimes are such a familiar sound to listeners to BBC radio over the years.
The tower was begun following the disastrous fire which destroyed the old Palace of Westminster in 1834. Charles Barry was given the contract to rebuild the Palace, and his designs included a clock tower.
At the time of its construction the clock mechanism was easily the largest in the world, and it is still among the largest today. The clock mechanism, designed by Edmund Beckett Denison, has proven to be remarkably accurate over the years, allowing small adjustments to the clock's rate to be made by placing pennies on a small shoulder of the clock's pendulum!
The Hour Bell
The bell had to be placed in a special wooden frame, turned on its side, and hoisted up the centre of the tower to the belfry. So heavy was Big Ben that the process took over 36 hours to complete. The bell began ringing the hours in July of 1859, but it cracked after only two months of use. Instead of recasting the bell, it was simply given a quarter turn, and a lighter hammer was used to strike the hours.
The best time to see Big Ben may be at night, when the clock faces are illuminated, as is the facade of the Palace of Westminster facing the Thames. The effect from Westminster Bridge or the far bank of the Thames can be breathtaking.
Photos of Big Ben - in our London Photo Gallery of historic places