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Tell me why: Big Ben. January 23, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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“Why do they call the clock in London Big Ben?” our friend Rob asked the other night over a bowl of Silence Dogood’s exceptional chili and some hot-from-the-oven cornbread. Now, it doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to see why they called it Big, but the Ben part is another matter.

Of course, we knew why the question had come up: Rob, a rabid Steelers fan, was doubtless thinking of “Big Ben” Roethlisberger, the Steelers’ quarterback. At 6’5″ and 250-260 pounds, Big Ben has clearly earned his nickname. But what about that clock? Our friend Ben, never averse to researching anything related to the name Ben, headed over to Google to find out.

Gadzooks! Turns out, the name Big Ben is correctly that of the biggest bell in the clock tower, not the actual clock (correctly “the Great Clock of Westminster”) at all. Even the bell’s real name is “the Great Bell.” Wikipedia explains:

“The origin of the nickname Big Ben is the subject of some debate. The nickname was applied first to the Great Bell; it may have been named after Sir Benjamin Hall, who oversaw the installation of the Great Bell [and whose name appears on the bell itself], or after boxing’s English Heavyweight Champion Benjamin Caunt. Now Big Ben is often used, by extension, to refer to the clock, the tower and the bell collectively…”

And the clock and tower? According to Wikipedia, “It is the largest four-faced chiming clock and the third-tallest free-standing clock tower in the world. It celebrated its 150th anniversary in May 2009… The clock first ticked on 31 May 1859.”

In 1859, Queen Victoria was 40 years old and had been on the throne for 22 years (there is an inscription on the clock itself, DOMINE SALVAM FAC REGINAM NOSTRAM VICTORIAM PRIMAM, “O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First,” linking it forever to the Victorian Age), and Sherlock Holmes was not even a gleam in his creator’s eye, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself was born on May 22, 1859, less than two weeks before the clock was set in motion. (Holmes first appeared in 1887.)

So there you have it. While Big Ben the bell/clock/tower may be the best-known and best-loved symbol of Great Britain and London, and our friend Rob may be hoping that “Big Ben” Roethlisberger will go on to become the same here in the States (or at least in Pittsburgh), here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, the biggest Ben of all remains our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin. “He snatched the lightning from heaven and the sceptre from tyrants.” Kinda hard for a mere tower, or even a quarterback, to beat that.