Photo of the Big Ben clock tower in London, England

Weekly Gem #208 Imperfectly Perfect

Published 8/24/2019

Location: This weekly gem is located at the intersection of Westminster Bridge and the River Thames in London (see the Clue Me! Map).

Big Ben is having a much-needed face lift, and in the process, we’ve discovered that the face we’ve been looking at for almost 90 years doesn’t meet spec. The flag of Great Britain is red, white, and blue. The tower clock is also supposed to be red, white and blue. We still have the white, but where are the red and the blue?

The blue was found during the renovation. The clock hands and numbers are supposed to be painted Prussian Blue, which was confirmed when the underlayers of paint were uncovered. In the 1930’s, for reasons unknown, the person in charge of repainting switched to black. One theory … this was when World War I was still fresh and when Adolf Hitler was gaining power in Germany. “Prussian” is pretty much synonymous with “Germany,” and the painters may have just said “we aren’t using Prussian Blue!” Well then, black it is!

The red was also rediscovered. There is supposed to be a row of St. George’s Crosses (i.e. the English cross of red on a white background). These decorations will also be restored, so when Big Ben is unveiled in a couple of years, the clocks will once again be red, white, and blue.

The white panels are being replaced, over 300 on each side, using blown glass made as in the 1800s. How do you use glass blowing to make a flat plate of glass? The answer is pretty simple. You blow glass into a cylinder, cut off the ends when it cools, score the glass down the center of the cylinder, and then reheat until it’s the consistency of taffy. At that temperature the glass can be pressed into an (almost) perfectly flat pane.

One reason for using blown glass is that it leaves bubbles and surface undulations that then create a subtle shimmering effect. Modern glass might be more perfect, but in this case, blown glass is clearly more perfect.

Speaking of imperfect. Big Ben is the name of the largest bell, not the name of the tower. Big Ben has had a crack since 1859, and produces a slightly off-key "E." The square hole that was cut out of the bell to keep the crack from lengthening didn't help. It was possible that the bell could be removed during the renovation (the entire roof being removed for the renovation), and replaced with an intact and better tuned bell. However, the decision was made to keep the existing Big Ben, warts and all. In the beginning, the flaws led to finger-pointing. Now that we've grown accustomed to them, they make tones of endearment.


Here's the hidden gem entry from our Clue Me! map.


Queen’s Timepiece


Big Ben

Why It's Interesting

All I have to say is, it’s definitely worth the time to visit

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