If asked to name the best-known tower in London, one could, perhaps, make a fair case for the likes of the Shard or the Gherkin. But whatever their current prominence on the skyline, those works of twenty-first-century starchitecture have yet to develop much value as symbols of the city. If sheer age were the deciding factor, then the Tower of London, the oldest intact building in the capital, would take the top spot, but for how many people outside England does its name call a clear image to mind? No, to find London’s most beloved vertical icon, we must look to the Victorian era, the only historical period that could have given rise to Big Ben.
We must first clarify that Big Ben is not a tower. The building you’re thinking of has been called the Elizabeth Tower since Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, but before that its name was the Clock Tower. That was apt enough, since tower’s defining feature has always been the clock at the top — or rather, the four clocks at the top, one for each face.
You can see how they work in the animated video from Youtuber Jared Owen above, which provides a detailed visual and verbal explanation of both the structure’s context and its content, including a tour of the mechanisms that have kept it running nearly without interruption for more than a century and a half.
Only by looking into the tower’s belfry can you see Big Ben, which, as Owens says, is actually the name of the largest of its bells. Its announcement of each hour on the hour — as well as the ringing of the other, smaller bells — is activated by a system of gear trains ultimately driven by gravity, harnessed by the swinging of a large pendulum (to which occasional speed adjustments have always been made with the reliable method of placing pennies on top of it). Owens doesn’t clarify whether or not this is the same pendulum Roger Miller sang about back in the sixties, but at least now we know that, technically speaking, we should interpret the following lyrics as not “the tower, Big Ben” but “the tower; Big Ben.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.