The clock tower of Big Ben may be one of London's best-known – and most photographed – landmarks but there's a lot more to this Victorian marvel than just a wonderful photo-opportunity. Its clock has rung out those famous hourly bells over 150 years of British history, from the Empire to the 2012 Olympics. It stands over Old River Thames, as well as the ancient parliament of the United Kingdom. And it has probably appeared in more films – Hollywood, Bollywood and other – than any other part of the British capital. Big Ben is as much part of England as red double-decker buses and Buckingham Palace.
Although this superb example of neo-Gothic Victorian architecture is instantly recognisable, most don't realise that it is the huge 13-ton bell inside that's actually named 'Big Ben'. The tower itself was officially known as the Clock Tower, until 2012, when it was renamed the Elizabeth Tower. That doesn't stop everyone, from London's taxi cab drivers to visiting tourists, calling it Big Ben. It was built in 1858, after the old Westminster Palace burned down, and a new Parliament building was needed.
It is now an irreplaceable sight, towering some 96 metres above the Thames, especially dramatic when seen from Westminster Bridge. It is also famed for its reliability, keeping time throughout two World Wars, and a bombing by the Germans in 1941. The ticking heart of Big Ben is a 300 kg, four metre long pendulum, which swings every two seconds. Amazingly, it is kept in time by a pile of old 'penny' coins stacked on the pendulum. Take one off, and you will slow Big Ben down by nearly half-a-second per day.
Another astonishing thing is that the bell is actually broken. It fractured within two months of being installed, and was repaired, and rotated, so that the crack wouldn't get larger with every strike. That repair job has lasted 150 years, although it did alter the tone of the bell. The BBC uses Big Ben's twelve 'gongs' to mark the midday on its radio news programme, as do many British TV programmes. And on 30 July 2012, it rang out 30 times, when London hosted the 30th Olympic Games of modern times. Big Ben, it seems, will always be the timeless centre of both London's skyline and its soundscape.