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What makes Big Ben tick?

28 March 2018

A 4 year conservation project has begun on Big Ben, however the clock will still keep time through the temporary installation of an electric motor…

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Think of any London landmarks and chances are you’ll picture Big Ben — or Elizabeth Tower as it’s officially known. Designed by Augustus Pugin, the neo-gothic tower stands at 315 feet tall, with each clock face measuring 23 feet in diameter. At the time of its completion in 1859, it was described as "the prince of timekeepers: the biggest, most accurate four-faced striking and chiming clock in the world". 

However, while tourists and London residents can still marvel at the landmark’s now iconic design, they won’t hear the clock’s iconic chimes for a while. A four-year conservation project started on 21 August 2017 on the clock’s mechanism. It will be dismantled as part of a laborious process that will see each cog examined and restored, the hands removed and refurbished and repair work carried out on the glass.

During the work, only one of the clock’s faces will be visible as a result of the scaffolding required for the work. However, the clock will still keep time through the temporary installation of an electric motor. 

But this isn’t the first time that an electric motor has been drawn in to support the clock. Houghton International — an electric motor rewind specialist — explains more. 
Metal fatigue back in 1976 nearly completely destroyed the clock. At 3.45am, the shaft that connects the chiming train to its fly fan broke, dramatically increasing the speed of the mechanism’s rotation as a result of the shaft’s 1.25 tonne weight and the lack of braking from the fly.

The chiming mechanism was completely destroyed as a result. The speeds reached were so high that many components were thrown with such force they crashed through the ceiling of the mechanism room. 

Work began to rectify the large-scale damage, including the reconstruction of the chiming train. Given the scale of the repair work that was required, the permanent installation of an electric motor was considered, however the eventual decision was made to repair the clock’s original mechanism, work that took a year to complete.

There are many other instances of hiccups in Big Ben’s operations. In 2005, the clock reportedly became victim to the unseasonable temperatures London was experiencing at the time. As temperatures reached 31.8°C in May, the clock stopped for in excess of 90 minutes in total.

A six week schedule of maintenance work began in 2007 to replace the chime train and striker. Again, during this time, an electric motor was used to restore the clock’s functionality.

The frequency of these incidents and the impact of each have left many questioning whether it would be more beneficial to permanently replace Big Ben’s mechanism with an electric motor.

This has been strengthened in light of the increase in restoration costs. The current works were expected to cost £29 million, but has since grown to £61 million, as the work required was said to be more complex than originally thought.

On one hand, an electric motor would improve reliability and reduce maintenance; yet doing so would sacrifice a part of the clock’s rich history. The internal mechanism is as fundamental to the tower as its iconic chimes. For now and in the future, let electric motors remain in the side-lines until Big Ben needs them most.


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