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

19 January 1978: production of the VW Beetle ends in Germany
Economy

19 January 1978: production of the VW Beetle ends in Germany

On this day in 1978, production of VW's iconic Beetle ended in Germany, though it would continue to be made in Mexico until 2003.
19 Jan 2021
A beginner’s guide to inflation
Inflation

A beginner’s guide to inflation

One of the most frequently mentioned topics in the news these days is inflation. But what exactly is inflation and how does it affect the economy and …
18 Jan 2021
Why the City should create a single financial market with the Swiss
Economy

Why the City should create a single financial market with the Swiss

A tie-up between London and Zurich, two global financial centres, could pay huge dividends for both, says Matthew Lynn.
17 Jan 2021
16 January 1991: Operation Desert Storm begins
This day in history

16 January 1991: Operation Desert Storm begins

Coalition forces led by the US launched an operation to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi forces on this day in 1991, sending the oil price soaring.
16 Jan 2021

Most Popular

Prepare for the end of the epic bubble in US stocks
US stockmarkets

Prepare for the end of the epic bubble in US stocks

US stocks are as expensive as they’ve ever been. How can you prepare your portfolio for a bubble bursting?
18 Jan 2021
Bitcoin: fool’s gold or the new gold?
Bitcoin

Bitcoin: fool’s gold or the new gold?

With bitcoin hitting new highs last week, and close to becoming a mainstream investment, is it really gold for the 21st century?
15 Jan 2021
It's not just the UK – we're seeing pandemic housing booms across the globe
Property

It's not just the UK – we're seeing pandemic housing booms across the globe

Soaring house prices aren’t just a UK thing, they’re a worldwide phenomenon. And it’s no coincidence – the underlying cause is much the same. John Ste…
18 Jan 2021