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May 31 is the 151st day of the year (152nd in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. There are 214 days remaining until the end of the year.
On this day in 1859, Big Ben goes into operation in London
The famous tower clock known as Big Ben, located at the top of the 320-foot-high St. Stephen’s Tower, rings out over the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, for the first time on this day in 1859.
After a fire destroyed much of the Palace of Westminster–the headquarters of the British Parliament–in October 1834, a standout feature of the design for the new palace was a large clock atop a tower. The royal astronomer, Sir George Airy, wanted the clock to have pinpoint accuracy, including twice-a-day checks with the Royal Greenwich Observatory. While many clockmakers dismissed this goal as impossible, Airy counted on the help of Edmund Beckett Denison, a formidable barrister known for his expertise in horology, or the science of measuring time.
Denison’s design, built by the company E.J. Dent & Co., was completed in 1854; five years later, St. Stephen’s Tower itself was finished. Weighing in at more than 13 tons, its massive bell was dragged to the tower through the streets of London by a team of 16 horses, to the cheers of onlookers. Once it was installed, Big Ben struck its first chimes on May 31, 1859. Just two months later, however, the heavy striker designed by Denison cracked the bell. Three more years passed before a lighter hammer was added and the clock went into service again. The bell was rotated so that the hammer would strike another surface, but the crack was never repaired.
The main bell, officially known as the Great Bell, is the largest bell in the tower and part of the Great Clock of Westminster. The bell is better known by the nickname Big Ben.
The original bell was a 16.3-tonne (16 ton) hour bell, cast on 6 August 1856 in Stockton-on-Tees by John Warner & Sons. The bell was named in honour of Sir Benjamin Hall, and his name is inscribed on it. However, another theory for the origin of the name is that the bell may have been named after a contemporary heavyweight boxer Benjamin Caunt. It is thought that the bell was originally to be called Victoria or Royal Victoria in honour of Queen Victoria, but that an MP suggested the nickname during a Parliamentary debate; the comment is not recorded in Hansard.
Since the tower was not yet finished, the bell was mounted in New Palace Yard. Cast in 1856, the first bell was transported to the tower on a trolley drawn by sixteen horses, with crowds cheering its progress. Unfortunately, it cracked beyond repair while being tested and a replacement had to be made. The bell was recast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry as a 13.76-tonne (13 1/2 ton) bell. This was pulled 200 ft up to the Clock Tower’s belfry, a feat that took 18 hours. It is 2.2 metres tall and 2.9 metres wide. This new bell first chimed in July 1859. In September it too cracked under the hammer, a mere two months after it officially went into service. According to the foundry’s manager, George Mears, Denison had used a hammer more than twice the maximum weight specified. For three years Big Ben was taken out of commission and the hours were struck on the lowest of the quarter bells until it was reinstalled. To make the repair, a square piece of metal was chipped out from the rim around the crack, and the bell given an eighth of a turn so the new hammer struck in a different place. Big Ben has chimed with an odd twang ever since and is still in use today complete with the crack. At the time of its casting, Big Ben was the largest bell in the British Isles until “Great Paul”, a 17 tonne (16 3/4 ton) bell currently hung in St Paul’s Cathedral, was cast in 1881.