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.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Growth of Lon­don, from the Romans to the 21st Cen­tu­ry, Visu­al­ized in a Time-Lapse Ani­mat­ed Map

3D Scans of 7,500 Famous Sculp­tures, Stat­ues & Art­works: Down­load & 3D Print Rodin’s Thinker, Michelangelo’s David & More

The Old­est Known Footage of Lon­don (1890–1920) Fea­tures the City’s Great Land­marks

Prague Mon­u­ment Dou­bles as Artist’s Can­vas

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.

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