Features

5 August 1976: Big Ben breaks down for the first time in 117 years

The Great Westminster Clock, AKA Big Ben, ran smoothly for over 100 years until, on this day in 1976, metal fatigue took its toll and the clock broke down.

The Great Westminster Clock, AKA Big Ben*, designed by Edmund Beckett Denison, has been one of London's most famous sights for over 100 years. Its familiar chimes ring out on the quarter hour, and every hour it strikes with extraordinary accuracy.

The secret to its great accuracy is its "double three-legged gravity escapement", which isolates the pendulum from external influences, such as the effect of wind on its heavy hands – each minute hand weighs 100kg, and each hour hand weighs 300kg. At five tonnes, the clock was and remains one of the largest mechanical clocks in the world.

It was completed in 1854, at a cost of £2,500. However, the tower to house it wasn't ready for an other five years. So it wasn't until 31 May 1859, that the clock finally began ticking. The bell came even later that didn't sound until 11 July. But it soon cracked, and remained silent for four years.

After that, all went well for over a century, until around 3:45AM on this day in 1976. A policeman on duty in the Palace of Westminster heard a "thud". He called the engineers, who raced up to the clock room. When they got there, they were met with a scene of complete devastation. There was metal everywhere on the floor, embedded in the walls and punching holes in the ceiling. It looked like the clock was ruined.

Fatigue in the century-old metal had caused a sudden fracture in the chiming mechanism, which sent the flywheel and huge chunks of metal spinning around the clockroom, smashing the clock to pieces. Big Ben was silenced.

Local clockmakers Thwaites & Reed who had tendered unsuccessfully to build the original clock were called in to repair it. And after nine months of work, the clock was restarted on 9 May 1977.

* This isn't QI. We all know that technically, the clock isn't officially called Big Ben. That's the bell (though officially, it's not even the bell – Parliament calls that "The Great Bell"). The clock is just called "The Great Clock". The only thing with a name is the tower, which was recently named Elizabeth Tower. But even that's still Big Ben to most people.

Recommended

Bitcoin mania: private currencies are nothing new
Bitcoin

Bitcoin mania: private currencies are nothing new

The idea is gaining ground that bitcoin and the plethora of other new currencies are here to stay. But the existence of private currencies operating p…
15 Apr 2021
Too embarrassed to ask: what’s the difference between producer price inflation and consumer price inflation?
Too embarrassed to ask

Too embarrassed to ask: what’s the difference between producer price inflation and consumer price inflation?

Two of the most important indicators for the economy are “producer price inflation” and “consumer price inflation”. But what are they and what do they…
13 Apr 2021
How the Covid-19 vaccine crisis is putting the EU in danger
EU Economy

How the Covid-19 vaccine crisis is putting the EU in danger

The botched coronavirus vaccine campaign will cause long-term harm to the EU's economy, says Matthew Lynn.
4 Apr 2021
What does Joe Biden’s $3trn infrastructure plan mean for your money?
US Economy

What does Joe Biden’s $3trn infrastructure plan mean for your money?

Joe Biden is set to announce a further $3trn of public stimulus in the US. Saloni Sardana looks at what’s on the table, and what effect it could have …
30 Mar 2021

Most Popular

The bitcoin bubble will burst: here’s how to play it
Bitcoin

The bitcoin bubble will burst: here’s how to play it

The cryptocurrency’s price has soared far beyond its fundamentals, says Matthew Partridge. Here, he looks at how to short bitcoin.
12 Apr 2021
What does the Coinbase listing mean for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies?
Bitcoin

What does the Coinbase listing mean for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies?

As the bitcoin price hit new highs, the world's biggest cryptocurrency exchange, Coinbase, listed on the stockmarket. John Stepek looks at what that m…
15 Apr 2021
Properties for sale for around £400,000
Houses for sale

Properties for sale for around £400,000

From a converted church in Banffshire with views towards the Cairngorms National Park, to a period property in the Georgian market town of Beverley, e…
2 Apr 2021