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.

The 25 Best Colleges in America

Vasyl Dolmatov/iStock via Getty Images
Vasyl Dolmatov/iStock via Getty Images

The college decision process is always a tough one, but review site Niche's annual rankings of the best colleges in America make it easier for prospective students (and their parents) to narrow down the choices to find the best fit. The 2020 list takes a variety of factors into account, including student life, admissions, finances, and student reviews. But the most important factor in their methodology, comprising 40 percent of a school's overall rating, is academics, which, according to the Niche website, looks at "acceptance rate, quality of professors, as well as student and alumni surveys regarding academics at the school."

Taking the number one spot on Niche's list for the second year in a row is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed by Stanford University in the number two spot (again, for the second year in a row). Six of America's eight Ivy League schools made it into the top 10.

Here are the 25 Best Colleges in America for 2020, according to Niche's rankings.

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology // Cambridge, MA

  1. Stanford University // Stanford, CA

  1. Yale University // New Haven, CT

  1. Harvard University // Cambridge, MA

  1. Princeton University // Princeton, NJ

  1. Duke University // Durham, NC

  1. Brown University // Providence, RI

  1. Columbia University // New York, NY

  1. University of Pennsylvania // Philadelphia, PA

  1. Rice University // Houston, TX

  1. Northwestern University // Evanston, IL

  1. Vanderbilt University // Nashville, TN

  1. Pomona College // Claremont, CA

  1. Washington University in St. Louis // St. Louis, MO

  1. Dartmouth College // Hanover, NH

  1. California Institute of Technology // Pasadena, CA

  1. University of Notre Dame // Notre Dame, IN

  1. University of Chicago // Chicago, IL

  1. University of Southern California // Los Angeles, CA

  1. Cornell University // Ithaca, NY

  1. Bowdoin College // Brunswick, ME

  1. Amherst College // Amherst, MA

  1. University of Michigan // Ann Arbor, MI

  1. Georgetown University // Washington DC

  1. Tufts University // Medford, MA

12 Facts About Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Two bison grazing in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Two bison grazing in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
scgerding/iStock via Getty Images Plus

The only U.S. national park named after a person—America's 26th presidentTheodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) was established in North Dakota by Harry S. Truman in 1947. The park honors Roosevelt, who lived as a ranchman in the Dakota Territory in the 1880s and, as president, conserved 230 million acres of public land for future generations. Read on for things to do and see, plus what to know before you go camping, in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

1. The plans for Theodore Roosevelt National Park began not long after Roosevelt’s death in 1919.

Medora, North Dakota, was chosen as the site of the memorial, and in 1921, the state’s legislature asked its reps in Congress to help set aside land for that purpose. One early proposal called for a park of more than 2000 acres, but that was controversial—the land was valuable to ranchers. Some believed a national monument was more appropriate than a national park.

Then, in the 1930s, drought and overgrazing led many homesteaders to abandon their land, which they sold to the federal government; some of those lands were set aside to create a park. In 1935, the land—which was in a north unit and a south unit—became the Roosevelt Recreation Demonstration Area, and in 1946, it was taken over by the Fish and Wildlife Service and became the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge.

On April 25, 1947, President Harry Truman signed the bill that created Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park; at that time, the land included the South Unit and the site of Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch. The North Unit of the park was added the next year. Finally, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a law that changed the memorial park to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. In 2018, it received nearly 750,000 visitors.

2. Before the land became Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Native Americans hunted in the area.

A flint spearpoint and other projectiles from the Archaic Culture (5500 BCE to 500 CE) have been found in the park, as have artifacts from the Plains Woodland Tradition (1 to 1200 CE) and pre-Columbian peoples. Though one of the pre-Columbian sites includes a bison processing camp (or what remains of it), there was no permanent occupation of the area of that time, according to the park’s website.

There are a number of sites from what the website calls the Historic Period, which lasted from 1742 to the 1880s, and included artifacts like “stone rings, a rock cairn, and four conical, timbered lodges. Two of the lodges, presumably used by men engaged in seasonal eagle trapping, are still standing today … One archaeological interpretation indicated that the use of the badlands for hunting, gathering, and spiritual pursuits, though undertaken by numerous cultures and groups over millennia, had not significantly changed over that entire time span.” The Mandan and Hidatsa, among many other Native tribes, hunted in the area, and the lands have spiritual significance for some tribes as well.

3. Theodore Roosevelt National Park contains 70,488 acres.

The park is spread over three units. The South Unit, which is located in Medora off I-94, is its most visited area. The North Unit, 50 miles off the same highway, is more remote. Both units have scenic drives—though the drive in the South Unit is currently closed due to slumping—and hiking trails. The South Unit also has a petrified forest with a 10.3-mile trail.

The third unit of the park is its smallest, and very out of the way: The roads leading to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit are unpaved and sometimes require four-wheel drive. No roads go directly to the site to preserve the solitude TR would have felt living there, so getting to the site requires a bit of a walk along a mowed pathway.

4. Visitors to Theodore Roosevelt National Park can see the future president’s Maltese Cross ranch house.

Theodore Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Ranch Cabin in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Theodore Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Ranch Cabin.
Erin McCarthy

When Theodore Roosevelt first came to the Dakota Badlands to hunt bison in 1883, he stayed with some cattle ranchers and decided to invest in a ranch himself. Before he left, he invested $14,000 into Maltese Cross Ranch. The cabin was built seven miles outside of Medora, and it was unusual for the area: While most houses were made of sod, Roosevelt’s ranch was made of ponderosa pine. It had a singled, pitched roof, which created an upper half-story where his ranch hands could sleep. There were three rooms (a kitchen, a living room, and a bedroom for TR), and white-washed walls.

The cabin got new owners in 1900, and after Roosevelt became president, it went on tour: It could be seen at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, then to Portland, Oregon, for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. For a time, it sat in Fargo, North Dakota, and then on the state capital grounds in Bismarck. Finally, in 1959, the cabin came back to what was, by then, Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. Today, it can be found in the South Unit of the Park behind the Visitor’s Center.

The building is mostly original; the roof and shingles were removed at one point and have been restored. Inside, visitors can see several authentic Roosevelt artifacts, including a traveling trunk with “T.R.” on the top and a hutch.

5. Visitors to Theodore Roosevelt National Park can go out to the site where Roosevelt’s second ranch house once stood.

A gate in front of the site of Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch site.
A gate in front of the site of Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch site.
Erin McCarthy

In 1884, Roosevelt decided to abandon politics after the deaths of his wife and mother and settle at his ranch in the Dakotas permanently. But his Maltese Cross cabin was located on a popular route into Medora, and people were always stopping by. Grieving and seeking solitude, Roosevelt rode out to a site 35 miles north of Medora that had been recommended to him.

On the site, Roosevelt found the skulls of two elk, their horns interlocked, and named what he would come to refer to as his Home Ranch in their honor. He bought the rights to the site for $400; his nearest neighbors were at least 10 miles away.

Two friends of Roosevelt’s from Maine, Bill Sewall and Wilmont Dow, came to the Dakotas and built the 30-by-60-foot house of cottonwood pine; it had 7-foot high walls, eight rooms, and a veranda. Also on the site was a barn, a blacksmith’s shop, a cattle shed, and a chicken coop.

In Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, Roosevelt wrote:

“My home ranch-house stands on the river brink. From the low, long veranda, shaded by leafy cotton-woods, one looks across sand bars and shallows to a strip of meadowland, behind which rises a line of sheer cliffs and grassy plateaus. This veranda is a pleasant place in the summer evenings when a cool breeze stirs along the river and blows in the faces of the tired men, who loll back in their rocking-chairs (what true American does not enjoy a rocking-chair?), book in hand—though they do not often read the books, but rock gently to and for, gazing sleepily out at the weird-looking buttes opposite, until their sharp outlines grow indistinct and purple in the after-glow of the sunset."

But the cattle business was not meant to be Roosevelt’s future. He eventually returned to New York, and after a hard winter where he lost 60 percent of his herd, he sold the ranch in 1898. By 1901—the year Roosevelt became president—the ranch was gone. A local said that all that remained was “a couple of half-rotted foundations."

Today, visitors to TRNP can take a scenic drive on gravel roads, then hike three-eighths of a mile to the Elkhorn site, located between the Little Missouri River and black, white, and yellow Badlands bluffs. There, they can stand on the foundation stones that mark where TR’s Home Ranch once stood, listening to the birds, insects, and low mooing of cattle, as he would have done. (They might even encounter a cow or two on the trail!)

6. More than 185 species of birds have been spotted in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The black and brown Spotted Towhee in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.
Spotted Towhee in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Wildnerdpix/iStock via Getty Images Plus

They include bald and golden eagles, blue-winged teal, American wigeon, turkey vultures, prairie and peregrine falcons, and the sage grouse. The park has a handy checklist [PDF] to help visitors keep track of the birds they’ve seen.

Birds aren’t the only animals you might see: TRNP is also home to elk, prairie dogs, pronghorns, feral horses, big horn sheep, coyotes, badgers, beavers, porcupines, mule deer, longhorn steers, rattlesnakes, and bison.

7. There are hundreds of bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Whether you call them bison or buffalo (though Americans use the terms interchangeably, there is a difference!), you’ll have a chance to see plenty of them at TRNP. Both the north and south units have herds—200 to 400 animals in the south and 100 to 300 in the north. Full-grown bison bulls can stand up to 6 feet tall and weigh up to 2000 pounds, so visitors should give them a wide berth or risk getting charged and possibly gored.

The American bison (Bison bison) was once critically endangered and nearly went extinct. (Roosevelt was one person who was instrumental in saving the species from extinction.) The animals were reintroduced into the park in 1956. Because all of the living bison are descended from a small number of animals, monitoring the genetic diversity of the herd is important. Every couple of years in October, park staff round up the animals in both units by using helicopters to herd them into progressively smaller enclosures. Eventually, each animal ends up in a squeeze shoot, where staff takes hair (for DNA analysis) and blood (to test for disease) samples and weighs and measures the animals. Bison born since the last roundup are given tags and microchips so they can be tracked.

8. Theodore Roosevelt National Park has a few prairie dog towns.

Two black-tailed prairie dogs coming out of a burrow in the ground.
Two black-tailed prairie dogs coming out of a burrow in the ground in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
RONSAN4D/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Black-tailed prairie dogs are abundant in TRNP. Roosevelt himself described them as “in shape like little woodchucks,” and called them “the most noisy and inquisitive animals imaginable.” Visitors can see the first of many prairie dog towns in the park near the Skyline Vista trail.

9. In prehistoric times, Theodore Roosevelt National Park was home to a Champsosaurus.

Fifty-five million years ago, during the Paleocene Epoch, North Dakota—including the area of TRNP—was a swamp, and in that swamp lived a reptile called Champsosaurus. The animal looked like modern-day crocodilians called gharials and could measure nearly 10 feet long.

10. You can go camping in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

There are three campgrounds in TNRP, but visitors just can’t drive in and set up a tent—reservations must be made, fees must be paid, and, in some cases, permits are required to camp in the park.

Camping isn't the only thing you can do in the park: It's also possible to canoe or kayak down the Little Missouri River if the water is deep enough.

11. The colors of the rocks in Theodore Roosevelt National Park tell a story.

A rock formation in Theodore Roosevelt National Park with gray, yellow, and light colored-layers.
hartmanc10/iStock via Getty Images Plus

The massive and unusual formations in TRNP, created by erosion over millions of years, are awe-inspiring—and you can tell a lot about them from the colors of their layers [PDF]. Brown and tan layers indicate sandstone, siltstone, and mudstone, which came from the Rocky Mountains, while blue-gray is bentonite clay laid down by the ash of far-away volcanic eruptions. (The clay can absorb up to five times its weight in liquid, which is why it’s used in … kitty litter.)

Black is a layer of coal, and red is the delightfully named clinker, which is formed when coal veins catch fire and cook the rock above it. Locally, the red rock is called scoria, but clinker is its scientific name.

One coal vein located in the park caught fire in 1951 and burned for 26 years. Apparently, visitors could roast marshmallows over the fire, which finally burned out in 1977. Fires in the Badlands aren’t unusual; they can be caused by lightning strikes or even set purposefully to reduce hazards or benefit certain species.

12. There are a number of interesting historic sites near Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

While you’re in the area, check out the Chateau de Mores—the mansion that was home to a French marquis who dreamed of bringing a cattle-slaughtering business to Medora—and the Von Hoffman House. And don’t miss the Medora Musical, a variety show held in an open-air amphitheater that features the history of the town’s most famous and infamous figures—plus an appearance by the president who once called the area his home.

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