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Big Ben is Running Fast

Or is it slow?

(Douglas Pearson/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

For many, the clock tower at London’s Palace of Westminster is a symbol of England. But, of course, it's also a clock, that’s been chiming out the time since 1859. But Londoners who rely on the clock might want to consult another source for now: As the AFP reports, the clock has been a bit screwy for the past few weeks.

The error is as much as six seconds, reports the AP, and technicians aren’t sure why the clock is running fast. They chalk up the issue to the “temperamental” nature of the 156-year-old clock, which they adjust in part by stacking penny coins on the pendulum.

The Guardian’s Claire Phipps reports that BBC broadcasters alerted clocksmiths of the issue after the chimes, which ring in the evening program on BBC Radio 4 every night, started ringing earlier than usual. When clocksmiths attempted to calibrate the clock, it started running slow. Now a clocksmith tells Phipps that the clock should be back on track once more.

It’s not the first time the clock has given its keepers trouble — it’s had several shutdowns and strange moments. In 2005, the AP reported that it stopped ticking for a full 90 minutes, then started up again. In 1947, reports the BBC, a flock of starlings slowed the clock by 4.5 minutes when they perched atop the minute hand.

And then there’s the issue of its name: In fact, the name “Big Ben” refers to the bell in Elizabeth Tower, not the clock or the tower itself, but no less than the British Parliament admits that “the name…is often used to describe the tower, the clock, and the bell.”

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