How Big Ben Works: A Detailed Look Inside London’s Beloved Victorian Clock Tower

If asked to name the best-known tower in London, one could, perhaps, make a fair case for the likes of the Shard or the Gherkin. But whatever their current prominence on the skyline, those works of twenty-first-century starchitecture have yet to develop much value as symbols of the city. If sheer age were the deciding factor, then the Tower of London, the oldest intact building in the capital, would take the top spot, but for how many people outside England does its name call a clear image to mind? No, to find London’s most beloved vertical icon, we must look to the Victorian era, the only historical period that could have given rise to Big Ben.

We must first clarify that Big Ben is not a tower. The building you’re thinking of has been called the Elizabeth Tower since Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, but before that its name was the Clock Tower. That was apt enough, since tower’s defining feature has always been the clock at the top — or rather, the four clocks at the top, one for each face.

You can see how they work in the animated video from Youtuber Jared Owen above, which provides a detailed visual and verbal explanation of both the structure’s context and its content, including a tour of the mechanisms that have kept it running nearly without interruption for more than a century and a half.

Only by looking into the tower’s belfry can you see Big Ben, which, as Owens says, is actually the name of the largest of its bells. Its announcement of each hour on the hour — as well as the ringing of the other, smaller bells — is activated by a system of gear trains ultimately driven by gravity, harnessed by the swinging of a large pendulum (to which occasional speed adjustments have always been made with the reliable method of placing pennies on top of it). Owens doesn’t clarify whether or not this is the same pendulum Roger Miller sang about back in the sixties, but at least now we know that, technically speaking, we should interpret the following lyrics as not “the tower, Big Ben” but “the tower; Big Ben.”

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Sylvia Plath’s Ten Back to School Commandments (1953)

plath commandments

Before her literary fame, her stormy relationship with Ted Hughes and her crippling battles with depression, Sylvia Plath was an enthusiastic student at Smith College. “The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon,” she wrote to her mother. “If only I can work, work, work to justify all of my opportunities.”

During her junior year, she broke her leg on a skiing trip in upstate New York. The accident landed her briefly in the hospital and she wound up with a cast on her leg. Her mood darkened.

Psyching herself out for her return to college, she wrote in her diary a pair of lists.

The first list is a short series of rules about how to behave around her new beau, Myron Lotz. All three points are good advice for anyone who is utterly smitten, particularly number two – “I will not throw myself at him physically.” In the end, Plath’s relationship with Lotz didn’t amount to much. She reportedly commemorated him within her poem “Mad Girl’s Love Song” with the refrain “I think I made you up inside my head.”

The second list is a collection of “Back to School Commandments.” These commandments included asking her English prof Robert Gorham Davis for an extension; consulting with her German teacher Marie Schnieders (“Be calm,” she writes mysteriously, “even it is a matter of life & death.”); and completing her application to be a guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine. (She nailed that last task.)

The list’s final commandment comes off bleaker than the mildly panicky motivational tone of the rest of the list. “Attitude is everything: so KEEP CHEERFUL, even if you fail your science, your unit, get a hateful silence from Myron, no dates, no praise, no love, nothing. There is a certain clinical satisfaction in seeing just how bad things can get.”

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

via The Excellent Lists of Note book

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Why Frank Lloyd Wright Designed a Gas Station in Minnesota (1958)

In the small town of Cloquet, Minnesota stands a piece of urban utopia. It takes the surprising form of a gas station, albeit one designed by no less a visionary of American architecture than Frank Lloyd Wright. He originally conceived it as an element of Broadacre City, a form of mechanized rural settlement intended as a Jeffersonian democracy-inspired rebuke against what Wright saw as the evils of the overgrown twentieth century city, first publicly presented in his 1932 book The Disappearing City. “That’s an aspirational title,” says architectural historian Richard Kronick in the Twin Cities PBS video above. “He thought that cities should go away.”

Cities didn’t go away, and Broadacre City remained speculative, though Wright did pursue every opportunity he could identify to bring it closer to reality. “In 1952, Ray and Emma Lindholm commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build them a home on the south side of Cloquet,” writes photographer Susan Tregoning.

When Wright “discovered that Mr. Lindholm was in the petroleum business, he mentioned that he was quite interested in gas station design.” When Lindholm decided to rebuild a Phillips 66 station a few years later, he accepted Wright’s design proposal, calling it “an experiment to see if a little beauty couldn’t be incorporated in something as commonplace as a service station” — though Wright himself, characteristically, wasn’t thinking in quite such humble terms.

Wright’s R. W. Lindholm Service Station incorporates a cantilevered upper-level “customer lounge,” and the idea, as Kronick puts it, “was that customers would sit up here and while their time away waiting for their cars to be repaired,” and no doubt “discuss the issues of the day.” In Wright’s mind, “this little room is where the details of democracy would be worked out.” As with Southdale Center, Victor Gruen’s pioneering shopping mall that had opened two years earlier in Minneapolis, two hours south of Cloquet, the community aspect of the design never came to fruition: though its windows offer a distinctively American (or to use Wright’s language, Usonian) vista, the customer lounge has a bare, disused look in the pictures visitors take today.

Image by Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons

There are many such visitors, who arrive from not just all around the country but all around the world. But when it was last sold in 2018, the buyer it found was relatively local: Minnesota-born Andrew Volna, owner of such Minneapolis operations as vinyl-record manufacturer Noiseland Industries and the once-abandoned, now-renovated Hollywood Theater. “Wright saw the station as a cultural center, somewhere to meet a friend, get your car fixed, and have a cup of coffee while you waited,” writes Tregoning, though he never did make it back out to the finished building before he died in 1959. These sixty-odd years later, perhaps Volna will be the one to turn this unlikely architectural hot spot into an even less likely social one as well.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Story of Lorem Ipsum: How Scrambled Text by Cicero Became Used by Typesetters Everywhere

In high school, the language I most fell in love with happened to be a dead one: Latin. Sure, it’s spoken at the Vatican, and when I first began to study the tongue of Virgil and Catullus, friends joked that I could only use it if I moved to Rome. Tempting, but church Latin barely resembles the classical written language, a highly formal grammar full of symmetries and puzzles. You don’t speak classical Latin; you solve it, labor over it, and gloat, to no one in particular, when you’ve rendered it somewhat intelligible. Given that the study of an ancient language is rarely a conversational art, it can sometimes feel a little alienating.

And so you might imagine how pleased I was to discover what looked like classical Latin in the real world: the text known to designers around the globe as “Lorem Ipsum,” also called “filler text” and (erroneously) “Greek copy.”

The idea, Priceonomics informs us, is to force people to look at the layout and font, not read the words. Also, “nobody would mistake it for their native language,” therefore Lorem Ipsum is “less likely than other filler text to be mistaken for final copy and published by accident.” If you’ve done any web design, you’ve probably seen it, looking something like this:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

When I first encountered this text, I did what any Latin geek will—set about trying to translate it. But it wasn’t long before I realized that Lorem Ipsum is mostly gibberish, a garbling of Latin that makes no real sense. The first word, “Lorem,” isn’t even a word; instead it’s a piece of the word “dolorem,” meaning pain, suffering, or sorrow. So where did this mash-up of Latin-like syntax come from, and how did it get so scrambled? First, the source of Lorem Ipsum—tracked down by Hampden-Sydney Director of Publications Richard McClintock—is Roman lawyer, statesmen, and philosopher Cicero, from an essay called “On the Extremes of Good and Evil,” or De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum.

675px-Cicero_-_Musei_Capitolini

Why Cicero? Put most simply, writes Priceonomics, “for a long time, Cicero was everywhere.” His fame as the most skilled of Roman rhetoricians meant that his writing became the benchmark for prose in Latin, the standard European language of the Middle Ages. The passage that generated Lorem Ipsum translates in part to a sentiment Latinists will well understand:

Nor is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure.

Dolorem Ipsum, “pain in and of itself,” sums up the tortuous feeling of trying to render some of Cicero’s complex, verbose sentences into English. Doing so with tolerable proficiency is, for some of us, “great pleasure” indeed.

But how did Cicero, that master stylist, come to be so badly manhandled as to be nearly unrecognizable? Lorem Ipsum has a history that long predates online content management. It has been used as filler text since the sixteenth century when—as McClintock theorized—“some typesetter had to make a type specimen book, to demo different fonts” and decided that “the text should be insensible, so as not to distract from the page’s graphical features.” It appears that this enterprising craftsman snatched up a page of Cicero he had lying around and turned it into nonsense. The text, says McClintock, “has survived not only four centuries of letter-by-letter resetting but even the leap into electronic typesetting, essentially unchanged.”

The story of Lorem Ipsum is a fascinating one—if you’re into that kind of thing—but its longevity raises a further question: should we still be using it at all, this mangling of a dead language, in a medium as vital and dynamic as web publishing, where “content” refers to hundreds of design elements besides font. Is Lorem Ipsum a quaint piece of nostalgia that’s outlived its usefulness? In answer, you may wish to read Karen McGrane’s spirited defense of the practice. Or, if you feel it’s time to let the garbled Latin go the way of manual typesetting machines, consider perhaps as an alternative “Nietzsche Ipsum,” which generates random paragraphs of mostly verb-less, incoherent Nietzsche-like text, in English. Hey, at least it looks like a real language.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Scientists Working in Antarctica Unwittingly Started to Develop a New Accent

The distinctiveness of the accent heard in a place reflects that place’s isolation. It’s probably no coincidence that, as almost every place in the world has become less isolated, accents have become less distinctive. In these days of vanishing forms of regional speech, if you wanted to hear a new one coming into being, you’d have to go to the ends of the Earth — or one specific end of the Earth, anyway, as demonstrated not long ago by researchers from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Taking and analyzing recordings made over the course of one winter, they discovered that a new accent has begun to take shape in English as spoken in Antarctica.

“Antarctica has no native population or permanent residents, but it does have a transitory community of scientists and support staff who live there for part of the year on a rotational basis,” writes Tom Hale at IFL Science. “In the summer months, there are typically around 5,000 people living in Antarctica, but that drops to just 1,000 in the winter.” It was from this group of the Antarctic “over-winterers” — and in particular, from those working on the British Antarctic Survey — that the linguistic researchers recruited their subjects, eight of whom were from England, one from the United States, one from Germany, and one from Iceland.

“The findings revealed subtle but measurable changes in the speech of the overwintering staff during their time in Antarctica,” writes Mental Floss’ Brett Reynolds. “One change was convergence, where individuals in a close-knit group unconsciously begin to adopt similar speech characteristics. In this case, that meant convergence of /u/ (the ‘oo’ in goose), /ju/ (the ‘you’ in few), /ou/ (the ‘oh’ in goat), and /ɪ:/ (the ‘ee’ in the last syllable in happy).” Apart from that phenomenon, the researchers also noticed another change in the /ou/ of goat: “the over-winterers began to pronounce it more toward the front of their mouths than toward the back. (British pronunciations are already typically fronter than American /ou/.)”

Even if you got into a conversation with a scientist just back from a long winter in Antarctica, you probably wouldn’t notice any of this. But the fact that the differences between the series of recordings taken at six-week intervals during the winter show measurable changes in pronunciation when compared to control recordings taken back in the United Kingdom suggests that the isolation of Antarctica really does encourage the formation of a new accent. Given a sufficiently long time span, an accent naturally becomes a dialect, and eventually a separate language. Perhaps, even in our age of much-lamented loss of linguistic diversity, some of us can look forward to having Antarctic-speaking descendants.

via Mental Floss

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The 500-Year-Old Chinese “Bagel” That Helped Win a War

As a general rule, you can gain a decent understanding of any part of the world by eating its regional specialties. This holds especially true in a country like China, with its great size and deep history. Travel to the southeastern province of Fujian, for instance, and you’ve got to try guang bing or “shiny biscuit,” the Chinese equivalent of the bagel. “With flour, dietary alkali and salt, the cake, no bigger than a palm, can be simply cooked, and sells for about 1 yuan ($0.14) on the streets,” says China Daily. “Locals love it, not only because of the crispy and salty taste, but also because of a legendary story.”

The distinctive dishes of border or coastal areas always seem to have particularly intriguing histories, and so it is with the one behind Fujian’s guang bing. “During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), General Qi Jiguang brought an army to fight Japanese invaders in Fujian. Because of continuous rain, they could not cook for the soldiers, so Qi created a kind of cake with a small hole in the middle. Soldiers could string the cakes together and carry them while fighting the enemy.”

The result looks — and presumably tastes — like a necklace of bagels, the preparation of which could be accomplished in underground ovens that didn’t give away the soldiers’ position as clearly as open campfires would.

You can learn more about this bagel-powered victory of five centuries ago from the Great Big Story video at the top of the post, and more about the continued preparation and sale of guang bing by a few dedicated bakers in the Atlas Obscura video just above. Though plenty of Fujianese take them straight, “some like to add pork, or dried shrimp and Chinese chives in it; some fry it with chitterlings, duck’s gizzard or green been; and some break it into pieces and boil it with soup.” Written records of the bagel as Westerners know it date back to early seventeenth-century Poland, with apparent predecessors seen in that country as early as the late fourteenth century. It may naturally occur to an American traveler in China to unite these two long but distant culinary traditions, in which case he’d do well to pack his own with lox and cream cheese.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why the Leaning Tower of Pisa Still Hasn’t Fallen Over, Even After 650 Years

The Leaning Tower of Pisa has stood, in its distinctive fashion, for six and a half centuries now. But it hasn’t always leaned at the same angle: to get the most dramatic view, the best time to go see it was the early nineteen-nineties, when its tilt had reached a full 5.5 degrees. Granted, at that point — when by some reckonings, the tower should no longer have been standing at all — it was closed to the public, presumably due to fears that the sheer weight of tourism would push it over the tipping point. The 1989 collapse of Pavia’s eleventh-century Civic Tower also had something to do with it: couldn’t something be done to spare Pisa’s world-famous landmark from a similar fate?

Attempts to shore up the Leaning Tower up to that point had a checkered history, to put it mildly. Built on soft soil, it started to lean in back in the twelfth century, before its construction was even complete. The process of that construction, in the event, took nearly 200 years to complete; during one decades-long pause during a particularly embattled period for the Republic of Pisa, the tower actually settled enough to prevent its later collapse, though it remained aslant. In the late thirteenth century, the best solution available for this condition was simply to build the rest of its floors in a curved shape in compensation.

For centuries after, the sight of the Leaning Tower tempted generations of structural engineers to straighten it out. It even tempted non-engineers like Benito Mussolini, who in 1934 ordered large amounts of concrete pumped into its foundation. Like most such operations, it only made the tower lean more; only in the second half of the twentieth century did the technology come along to analyze its foundations and the soil in which they were embedded clearly enough to devise an effective solution. This ended up involving the removal of soil with a slanted drill from under the tower’s higher end, which eventually brought it back to lean about four degrees, as it did nearly two centuries ago. After subsequent stabilization work, it was guaranteed to remain upright for at least another two centuries.

You can learn more about the construction and re-engineering of the Leaning Tower in the videos above from TED-Ed and Discovery UK. But you may still ask, why was it never brought down by an earthquake? “It turns out that the squishy soil at the structure’s base that caused its fetching infirmity – the tower was tilting by the time its second story was built in 1178 – contains the secret to its structural resilience,” writes Joe Quirke at Global Construction Review. This means that “the softness of the foundation soil cushions the tower from vibrations in such a way that the tower does not resonate with earthquake ground motion.” The very element that caused the tower to lean kept it from falling over, an irony to match the fact that such a seemingly misbegotten building project has become one of Italy’s proudest tourist attractions.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Look Inside the Labor-Intensive Process of Making a Tiffany-Style Lamp

What do Tiffany lamps have in common with Kleenex?

A brand name so mighty, it’s become an umbrella term.

Of course, Kleenex is still manufacturing tissues, whereas authentic lamps from Louis Comfort Tiffany’s New York studio were produced between 1890 and 1930.

Handcrafted of coiled bronze wire and many pieces of blown favrile glass arranged in intricate natural motifs, bonafide Tiffany lamps can fetch prices of over a million dollars.

The “Tiffany lamps” for sale on Wayfair?

Not the genuine article.

Still, if the one on your end table brings you pleasure, who are we to get snippy about it?

There’s plenty of that attitude to be found in the YouTube comments for the above process video …

To be clear, what you’re seeing is the process by which an affordable colored glass lampshade in the style of Tiffany comes together at an overseas factory.

The quality may be lacking, but it’s still a pretty labor-intensive proposition.

First, the pieces are cut by hand or using blades mounted on metal arms. Their shapes and number are predetermined by a pattern…again in the style of Tiffany.

You won’t find the speckled confetti glass or golden hued glass with a translucent amber sheen that are defining features of the real McCoy here…

Once the pieces have been cut and sorted, their edges are wrapped in copper foil tape. (In Tiffany’s day this would have involved hand cutting strips of copper, then smearing them with beeswax to help them to adhere to the glass.)

The wrapped pieces are then laid out in a mold according to the pattern and soldered together.

The bottom edge is reinforced, and the shade is fitted onto a lamp base.

If you’re a museum curator, a connoisseur of the genuine article or a glazier, we don’t fault you for getting a bit salty.

(Our favorite comment: Oh the humanity. I used to be a glazier. I couldn’t finish watching the video. The way they cut the glass dry and slide it around without felt on the table makes me cringe. You can hear the crinkling sound of glass particles under it when it’s being slid around. The smallest contoured cuts and breaks are so rough they’re practically gnawed. If clear glass was handled this way every window would have deep scratches and would probably self destruct from thermal cycling or a strong breeze.)

If you’re susceptible to ASMR, enjoy your tingles – all those crinkling sounds of glass particles!

If you’re someone who’s insatiably curious as to how ordinary things are made, we hope you’ll consider the twelve minutes of this Process Discovery video time well spent, and no less interesting than their non-narrative peeks into the manufacture of bubble mailers, snow globes and swim goggles

We leave you with a brief tour of the “real thing”, courtesy of the New York Historical Society:

via Colossal

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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