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Bong! Big Ben rings in its 150th anniversary

314-foot-high tower, roughly 16 stories, is London's most famous landmark

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Big Ben's sounds of silence
Aug. 11, 2007: Big Ben, London's famous landmark, was temporarily silenced as workers performed much needed maintenance and upgrades on the nearly 150-year-old tower. NBC's Ned Colt reports in this clip from the archive.

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updated 6:49 p.m. ET May 29, 2009

LONDON - Defiantly low-tech yet accurate to the second, Big Ben is having its 150th birthday Sunday, its Victorian chimes carrying the sound of Britain into the 21st century.

It's a birthday the world can share in. The peals of London's favorite clock are carried globally by BBC radio, and its 315-foot tower, roughly 16 stories, is the city's most famous landmark.

But getting inside and seeing Big Ben, the sonorous main bell that gives its name to the whole contraption, isn't easy. Security measures mean few are granted admission, and there's no elevator, so those who are escorted in must climb 334 winding limestone stairs.

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Catherine Moss, who took journalists on a pre-anniversary tour, said that in one year as a Big Ben guide, she had climbed the height of Everest three times over.

"It's my own private step machine," the trim-looking 51-year-old called down from the top of the tower.

No special events are planned, aside from an exhibition opening Sept. 19 in the nearby parliamentary offices.

Although the tan-colored tower above the Houses of Parliament is covered in a riot of gilt crowns, sculpted masonry and coats of arms, the interior looks functional. The 14 foot-long minute hand casts a faint shadow over the pale white glass of the dial. The 5.6 ton clock mechanism, like a giant wristwatch, is wound three times a week. In the age of atomic clocks, its near-perfect time is regulated by heavy old pennies laid on or removed from the pendulum.

The chimes, supposedly based on four notes from Handel's "Messiah," ring out every quarter hour from the intricately ornamented belfry. The bongs of Big Ben itself are heard every hour.

Silence at nine
It is rare — and a matter of citywide consternation — for the clock to go mute. But wars and accidents happen. Initial construction was one disaster after another, and in 1916 the chimes were stopped for two years lest they guide German bomber zeppelins to the parliament building.

Carried on BBC radio since 1924, the chimes took on added significance in World War II. Every night Britons observed a minute's silence as the clock struck nine. It was called the Big Ben Minute. Even as German bombs fell and air raid sirens howled, Big Ben's voice was heard.

The solemn chimes were a metaphor for Britons unflappable under fire, says Tam Dalyell, 76, a former lawmaker.

"It's defiant," Dalyell said in a telephone interview from his home in Scotland. "It's a sign of confidence and undaunted spirit."

On the night of May 10, 1941, an air raid wrecked the parliament building, sending up flames as high as the belfry. A small explosive shattered the clock's south dial and damaged stonework, but the clock didn't skip a second.

Its durability was "as great a boost to the morale of the British people as the speeches of Winston Churchill," according to Peter MacDonald, the author of "Big Ben: The Bell, the Clock and the Tower."

Moss, the tour guide, said she sees it in the faces of Blitz survivors who visit the tower.


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