(AP Video with historical footage via British Movietone)

Video Of The Day: Big Ben In Its Prime

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Britain’s Big Ben has bonged the hour for the last time ahead of almost four years of repair work.

The giant bell atop Parliament’s clock tower rang out 12 times at noon, Monday, August 21,  as parliamentary staff, lawmakers and passersby paused to listen.

The sound faded away to start what is scheduled to be the bell’s longest period of silence since it first rang out in 1859.

It is not due to resume regular timekeeping until 2021, though it will sound on special occasions such as New Year’s Eve.

The break will allow workers to carry out much-needed maintenance to the Victorian clock and the Elizabeth Tower (formerly known as Clock Tower). But some lawmakers have criticized the lengthy silence, calling Big Ben an important symbol of British democracy. They want the time scale for repairs tightened.

The bell has sounded the time almost uninterrupted since 1859 and rings out at 118 decibels – the equivalent of a jet plane taking off.

The 13.5 British ton (15.1 U.S. ton) Big Ben will cease to sound the hours while the clock is stopped, and it will be cleaned and checked for cracks.

The bongs of the iconic bell stopped after chiming noon on Aug. 21 to protect workers during a 29-million-pound ($38 million) repair project on the Queen Elizabeth Tower, which houses Big Ben and its clock. It isn’t due to resume regular service until 2021.

Officially named the Elizabeth Tower in honor of Queen Elizabeth II, the structure is one of London’s most famous landmarks.

Statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square (Photo Courtesy: Victor Moussa, Fotolia)
Statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square (Photo Courtesy: Victor Moussa, Fotolia)

It became a symbol of defiance when it survived German bombing raids during World War II — though one of the four clock faces was blown out.

The tower is popularly known as Big Ben, though that is actually the name of the largest of its five bells.

The four smaller bells chime the quarter hours, while Big Ben bongs out the hour.

In 1955 the clock face and bell got one of several facelifts ahead of the building’s 100th birthday celebrations.

This newsreel from 1959 celebrates the milestone, showing drawings from the late 19th century of its construction.

The clock started ticking on 31 May 1859, and the bell was struck for the first time six weeks later.

In 1834 The Palace of Westminster was burnt to the ground. A clock tower was added to the replacement building.

In 2009 most famous bell was celebrating its 150th year.

Although the 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 4.2 meter- (14 foot-) long minute hand casts a faint shadow over the pale white glass of the dial.

The 5-ton (5.6-U.S. 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.

Big Ben’s clock is purely mechanical, the only thing electric is to wind it up.

It is driven by weights and needs winding three times a week.

Three weights hang down underneath the clock and the clock is broken up into three trains (a series of wheels and gears).

The clock mechanism is driven by gravity. It’s also very accurate to within one or two seconds a day.

But the clock needs to be regularly adjusted.

The decision to silence Britain’s most famous bell for such a long period has provoked criticism.

British Parliament officials say they will review plans to silence Big Ben during four years of repairs after senior politicians criticized the lengthy muting of the beloved bell.

When the repairs were announced last year, officials said the massive bell in Parliament’s clock tower would be silenced for several months.

But now the ringing pause is scheduled to last until 2021.

The news has also been met with a mixed response on the streets on Westminster.

Anita Carangelo of Tampa, Florida, is visiting London with her son, Mitchell Polay.

“Listening to the chimes is very exciting but hopefully they’ll come back soon and not wait the four years they anticipated,” she says.

Her son, who lives in Yonkers, New York, agrees, pointing out that the bells have rang through tougher situations than routine repair.

“Through the Nazi blitz, you could ring the chimes during World War II,” he says. “I’m sure they could find a way – even if they have to alter it a little bit, and they don’t have to ring it as often.”

“It should chime,” says Carangelo.

“The bells should still ring. I mean, that’s what it’s there for,” says Polay.

But Jacqueline Cartwright, who is visiting London from Southport in Britain, says that the safety of the workers needs to come first, even if Big Ben is a big draw for tourists.

“It is sad, but if there’s work that needs to be done, then, to preserve it, the work’s got to be done,” she says. “If it takes four years, then it takes four years. You’ve got to protect the workers that are in it.”

The 29 million pound ($42 million) renovation will include work to repair corrosion to the cast-iron roof and to stop water seepage that threatens to damage the stonework on the iconic 160-year-old building.

Big Ben has been stopped several times since it first sounded in 1859, but the current restoration project will mark its longest period of silence.

Parliamentary officials say they will ensure that the bell still sounds on major occasions, such as New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Sunday.