The world-famous clock tower „Big Ben“ is situated in London next to the Houses of Parliament, the parliament building of the British government. “Big Ben” is actually the name given to the largest of the bells hanging in the tower, however it became popular to give this name to the whole tower. In 2012 the tower was renamed “Elizabeth Tower” to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. The tower, which was built in 1858, consists of brickwork with limestone cladding. The clock and the top of the tower are made of cast iron. Until 1880 the tower was used as a prison for Members of Parliament. For example, they were imprisoned for refusing to speak the religious phrase at their swearing-in ceremony. Since 2010 only residents of Great Britain are allowed to visit the tower. In order to prevent terror attacks, no oversees visitors are allowed to enter the tower.
The tower clock from the year 1848 is the second-largest clock in Great Britain. Each clock face is 7 m in diameter. The hour hands are 2.7 m long, the minute hands are 4.3 m long. Beneath each clock face one can read a Latin inscription: “Domine salvam fac reginam nostrum Victoriam primam” (“O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First”). To make sure that the clock functions correctly, four mechanics, the “Keepers of the great clock”, are on duty every day. An electric motor winds the clockwork three times a week. Traditionally, penny coins are placed on the pendulum, which weighs 299 kg, in order to adjust the time. There were disruptions when a flock of starlings slowed down the clock hands. On New Year’s Eve in 1962 icy temperatures blocked the mechanism and the New Year was chimed in 10 minutes late. In 2004 the chimes were silent for a week, because a counterweight was torn off. In 2005 the clockwork stopped for 90 minutes for unknown reasons.
In addition to “Big Ben”, four other bells hang in the tower. They play the “Westminster Chimes”, a melody which people all over the world associate with the tower. It was only in 1859, however, that this melody was chosen for the chimes. Originally it had been composed in 1793 for the university church clock in Cambridge. It is meant to represent a variation of two bars of an aria from Georg Friedrich Händel’s Oratorium “Messiah”. Each quarter-hour, four notes sound in cadences of various lengths. First a one-bar downwards sequence is played. After half an hour a melody of two bars is played. The cadence for three-quarters of an hour consists of another melody of two bars and the downward sequence of the first quarter-hour. For the full hour chime, both melodies are combined and then the big bell “Big Ben” can be heard. Every day at 6 p.m. the BBC broadcasting station broadcasts the Westminster Chimes live on television and thus begins its news programme. The chimes are used world-wide for many clocks, doorbells and school bells. The melody has been cited in numerous songs – in church music as well as in rock music.