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

I wish I knew what contagion was, but I’m too embarrassed to ask
Too embarrassed to ask

I wish I knew what contagion was, but I’m too embarrassed to ask

Most of us probably know what “contagion” is in a biological sense. But it also crops up in financial markets. Here's what it means.
21 Sep 2021
The charts that matter: more pain for goldbugs
Economy

The charts that matter: more pain for goldbugs

Gold investors saw more disappointment this week as the yellow metal took a tumble. Here’s what’s happened to the charts that matter most to the globa…
18 Sep 2021
With the right political will, inflation can be defeated
Inflation

With the right political will, inflation can be defeated

Governments and central banks can easily control inflation, says Merryn Somerset Webb – they just need the will.
17 Sep 2021
Why are energy prices going up so much?
Energy

Why are energy prices going up so much?

UK energy prices are going through the roof, with electricity the most expensive in Europe and gas at its highest for 13 years. Saloni Sardana explain…
16 Sep 2021

Most Popular

The times may be changing, but don’t change how you invest
Small cap stocks

The times may be changing, but don’t change how you invest

We are living in strange times. But the basics of investing remain the same: buy fairly-priced stocks that can provide an income. And there are few be…
13 Sep 2021
Two shipping funds to buy for steady income
Investment trusts

Two shipping funds to buy for steady income

Returns from owning ships are volatile, but these two investment trusts are trying to make the sector less risky.
7 Sep 2021
How to stop recurring subscriptions becoming a drain on your money
Personal finance

How to stop recurring subscriptions becoming a drain on your money

Tracking and pruning subscriptions isn’t as easy as it sounds. Here's how to take charge.
14 Sep 2021