Big Ben is one of the most iconic—and misidentified—landmarks in the world. The name initially referred not to the distinctive 320-foot-high clock tower on the north side of the British Houses of Parliament, renamed the Elizabeth Tower in honor of Queen Elizabeth II during her diamond jubilee in 2012, but to the enormous 13-ton bell housed inside that sounds every hour.
The first version of Big Ben cast for the tower arrived in London in 1856, but it cracked before it could ever be put in place. A second, lighter bell was hoisted up to the belfry in October 1858. The tower’s clock began ticking on May 31, 1859, and the new bell, struck from the outside by a hammer rather than swung and struck inside by a clapper, first rang out on July 11, 1859. Two months later, however, the heavy striker cracked the bell, and Big Ben fell silent for upwards of four years until it was rotated and a lighter hammer delivered a more gentle touch to a different spot on the bell.
While some theorize that the prodigious bell’s nickname derived from another 19th-century English heavyweight known as “Big Ben,” bare-knuckle boxing champion Ben Caunt, the most likely eponym is Sir Benjamin Hall, a Welsh civil engineer who served as a member of the House of Commons for nearly three decades. As First Commissioner of Works, Hall oversaw the latter stages of the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament following a devastating 1834 fire, and his name is inscribed on the bell hanging in the clock tower. A Times of London report from October 22, 1856, adds credence to the theory. “All bells, we believe, are christened before they begin to toll,” the newspaper reported as the initial bell arrived at Parliament, “and on this occasion it is proposed to call our king of bells ‘Big Ben’ in honour of Sir Benjamin Hall, the president of the board of works, during whose tenure of office it was cast.”