How things work, Big Ben department
October 6, 2011 5:42 PM   Subscribe

As part of a comprehensive site on the workings of the UK Parliament, you can explore in detail the mysteries of Big Ben. Don't miss:

-- How the Great Clock Works — a nifty animated explanation
-- How the Clockmakers change the time during Time Change Weekends (daylight savings and back again, October 30 this year)
-- The making of the Great Bell — the actual Big Ben
-- The building of the Great Clock, completed in 1859, and Great Clock facts and figures ("Distance travelled by minute hands per year: equivalent of 190km")
-- Great Bell and quarter bells video and facts ("Second quarter bell .... Musical note when struck: F sharp")
-- Big Ben downloads: Ringtones, website banner and wallpaper
posted by beagle (11 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Fascinating. Thanks! The clocktower in the Legislatura (city council) building in Buenos Aires uses the same rings for the quarters and the hour.

This allows me to use my one bit of bell-related trivia. Both Big Ben and the Liberty Bell were made by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which also happens to be the oldest manufacturing company in the UK, dating back to at least 1570. They've been in their current premises since 1670.
posted by jontyjago at 5:59 PM on October 6, 2011

Woot! New ringtone!
posted by Samizdata at 6:03 PM on October 6, 2011

My father, when I was a youth, bought a Herschede clock mechanism, one of the last true clock makers in the country. They went out of business long ago, I think in the late 1970s. I remember helping him build the case, but I'm pretty sure he did that part himself... I think he duplicated the official kit, rather than buying it from Herschede. (I'm not entirely sure, as I was very young, maybe four or five.) I think it's made of mahogany.

That thing chimed the Westminster song every quarter hour for more than twenty years as I was growing up. Hearing those notes again was kind of eerie; I hadn't realized we had a tiny Big Ben in our house. Our clock at home actually sounded better than the recording on that first web page, much cleaner and nicer, especially the hour "bong". And it kept extremely good time.... once he got the pendulum adjusted, I think it was within a couple of minutes a year.

It's sad that you simply can't get workmanship like that anymore. As far as I know, with (very) occasional lubrication and adjustment, that mechanism will work for centuries. It's all brass and chrome, and you need to wear gloves while handling it, as the oils from your hands will pit the metal, but it'll run almost forever with some care. And it kept extremely good time... he had to fiddle with the pendulum a bit for the first month or two, and then I think it ran within a couple of minutes per year ever after.

Mechanical clocks are awesome, the coolest machines I know.
posted by Malor at 6:50 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oops, I repeated myself there, doh. More previewing, Malor. *whack*
posted by Malor at 6:52 PM on October 6, 2011

Woot! New ringtone!

I happen to have an open AskMe about a certain clock tower ringtone.
posted by swift at 6:58 PM on October 6, 2011

This is interesting. I've finally learned the name, lyrics, and possible origins of that tune I've heard from clocks all over the world. Westminster Quarters - the hourly chime in the ringtone link - is possibly based on Handel's I know that my redeemer liveth from the Messiah, though I don't hear it anywhere there. (Anybody hear it?)
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:02 PM on October 6, 2011

That animation of the clockwork is unreal. If this is what you're into, this clock restoration company also has some unbelievable stuff.
posted by skbw at 8:03 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

"It was tested each day until 17 October 1857 when a 1.2m crack appeared. No-one would accept the blame." Plus ça change...
posted by skbw at 8:06 PM on October 6, 2011

A self link here, but my wife and I had a guided tour of the clock tower back in 2009. The tour was supposed to finish at noon in front of Big Ben and even though cameras were not permitted in the tower I couldn't resist recording the ringing of the chimes. What I did record doesn't happen that often!
posted by smcniven at 8:28 PM on October 6, 2011

More bongs than a Stonehenge Free Festival tepee.
posted by Abiezer at 11:34 PM on October 6, 2011

Abiezer! Quit bogarting the clock.

The bells in the National Cathedral in DC (not the carillon, but the hand-rung ones) are also from Whitechapel.

Here is a list of Great Bells of the British Isles. As you can see, they mostly have male names, whereas European Great Bells often have female names.
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:15 PM on October 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

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