15 Huge Facts About Big Ben

iStock/mammuth
iStock/mammuth

You may have snapped a photo of England’s most iconic clock or seen it in footage of London, but how well do you really know the United Kingdom’s towering timepiece—which rang out for the first time on May 31, 1859.

1. The name "Big Ben" refers to the clock tower's largest bell, not the Clock or the tower itself. 

At some point, London’s superstar clock tower acquired the nickname Big Ben—a name originally given not to the tower itself or even its clock, but to the largest of the clock’s five bells. Also known as the Great Bell, Big Ben stands more than 7 feet tall, measures 9 feet in diameter, and weighs nearly 14 tons. The E-natural behemoth leads a team of four quarter bells, which chime B-natural, E-natural, F-sharp, and G-sharp tones. 

2. Big Ben's clock tower has gone by several names.

Even though it has assumed the Big Ben moniker, the tower has its own official name. For the bulk of its life, the landmark was known simply as the Clock Tower, but it was commonly referenced (especially by the Victorian press) as St. Stephen’s Tower. In 2012, the structure took on a new name—Elizabeth Tower—as part of the celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s 60-year reign. Additionally, the clock itself is named the Great Clock of Westminster. 

3. The bell took its name from one of two famous Bens.

The original “Ben” who lent his name to the bell is a bit of mystery. The prime candidate for the handle’s inspiration is Sir Benjamin Hall, a 19th century engineer and politician who was also a famously large man. As the story goes, Hall gave a longwinded speech on the topic of what the bell should be named, leading a colleague to quip, “Why not call him Big Ben and have done with it?” Hall’s name is inscribed on the bell, which would seem to support this theory. 

The other dominant explanation is that the bell took its name from Benjamin Caunt, a champion heavyweight bare-knuckle boxer of the 19th century. 

4. A lawyer and an astronomer designed the clock movement.

London's Big Ben clock tower
iStock/Moussa81

While you might guess that the English government would have charged top clockmakers with the task of creating such a prominent timekeeper, the pair who actually designed the clock were not trained horologists. Royal Astronomer Sir George Biddell Airy came up with the specifications that the clock had to have, and lawyer, politician, and railway promoter Sir Edmund Beckett Denison designed the movement. 

5. The clockmaker invented a whole new mechanical system for Big Ben.

Airy hired clockmaker Edward John Dent to bring Beckett Denison’s design into reality in 1852, but Dent passed away just one year later before he could finish the job. The project passed to Dent’s stepson, Frederick Rippon Dent. Working from Beckett Denison’s design, Dent built the double three-legged gravity escapement that would become the standard for clock tower design thereafter. 

6. Only residents of the United Kingdom are allowed inside the tower.

Though Big Ben ranks as one of England’s most popular tourist attractions, overseas visitors are not allowed to venture inside the tower. As of 2010, only residents of the United Kingdom can take the tour—and you have to be sponsored by a Member of Parliament of the House of Lords. At the moment, however, none of that really matters: Because of ongoing renovations being made to Elizabeth Tower, all tours have been suspended until at least 2021.

7. Reaching the clock requires a steep climb.

Individuals who are lucky enough to be able to see Big Ben up close face a bit of a climb: There’s no elevator, so the only route to the belfry level is a 334-step spiral stairway. 

8. It took more than a day to haul Big Ben up to the belfry.

If a 334-step hike seems like too much to bear, imagine making the journey with a giant 14-ton bell in tow. It was only after the Great Bell was cast—and then replaced after it cracked during testing—that the men in charge of transporting it to its permanent quarters in the belfry realized that it was just a bit too large for an easy ascent of the building’s narrow stairwell. With some precise angling, winching the mammoth instrument up the 200-foot-high climb was possible, but it wasn’t easy. From start to finish, the job took a full 30 hours

9. The tower leans slightly northwest.

Over its 160 years of keeping an eye on London’s streets, Big Ben has picked up a noticeable tilt. Today, the clock tower leans about a foot and a half off center, pointing northwestward. The main theory for what’s causing the lean is the drying out of the London clay beneath the tower. 

10. A stack of coins keeps the clock on point.

Eschewing high-tech modern methods for timekeeping, Big Ben relies on a far more old-fashioned measure: The lucky penny. Seated perpetually atop Ben’s swinging pendulum is a stack of now discontinued British penny coins. The weight of the stack balances the pendulum’s center of mass, ensuring a steady swing rate and consistent timekeeping. The removal or addition of a coin can alter the clock’s projection by 0.4 seconds per day. In 2009, three of the 10 coins that sit atop the pendulum lost their spot to a five-pound coin celebrating London’s hosting of the 2012 Olympics. 

11. The tower goes incognito during wartime.

Ordinarily, Big Ben is a beacon of English pride with its bright glow and vociferous ring. In times of war, however, the clock tower goes into hiding, dimming its lights and silencing its bells to keep from inviting enemy assault on the Houses of Parliament. Big Ben’s face was dark and its chimes were silent for two years during World War I. During World War II, the clock was dark, but the bell kept ringing. 

12. German bombs couldn't stop the clock from ticking.

Despite efforts to draw attention away from Big Ben, the German military did manage to get the drop on the clock tower. In May of 1941, a Nazi raid on Parliament resulted in the destruction of the House of Commons chamber and damages to Big Ben’s roof and dials. The Commons required total reconstruction, but the clock remained functionally intact throughout the entire ordeal. 

13. The clock didn't fare as well against a flock of birds.

A black and white photo of Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben
iStock/Mohana-AntonMeryl

In 1949, Big Ben would met with an adversary more powerful than the Luftwaffe: A flock of starlings. In August of that year, a group of birds decided the clock’s tremendous minute hand would make a suitable place for an evening perch. The copper appendage attracted so many birds that their collective weight slowed the clockwork by more than four and a half minutes. Management was able to correct this error within a few hours. 

14. The clock faced its first major shutdown in 1976. 

While the bells and lights of Big Ben have taken some breaks over the decades, it took more than 100 years for the clock to have to endure its first significant nonoperational period. In August 1976, general wear and tear of the aging device threw a number of its internal mechanisms into dysfunction, leading to periodic shutdowns for repairs over the next nine months. By May 1977, Big Ben was back in service.

15. Big Ben ceased chiming in 2017.

In late August 2017, Big Ben went silent. The measure was intended to protect workers completing what is intended to be a four-year restoration of both the clock and its surrounding structure. The clock will be dismantled piece by piece, so that its four dials can be cleaned and fixed. Its faces will be temporarily covered, but an electric motor will continue to drive the clock hands so it can keep telling time.

Architects also plan to modernize the clock tower by making it more energy-efficient, and adding an elevator, toilet, and kitchen. But until that work is completed in 2021, Big Ben will still chime only on New Year’s Eve, Remembrance Sunday (a UK holiday that honors veterans), and other special occasions.

This story has been updated for 2019.

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here.

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