Big Ben, Small Changes

Jan 29, 2021


Big Ben’s 14-foot minute hands move with accuracy down to the penny, yes, to the penny! Learn how one penny can influence a 31,000-pound bell.

I have three battery-powered clocks. You know, the kind that must be manually reset every Spring and Fall? I can hear when a battery needs replaced because the secondhand sounds flat; it just doesn’t have enough power to make it past the nine on the clock face! I may complain about switching out rechargeable batteries, but at least I am not winding each clock by hand or taking responsibility for their accuracy. This is in stark contrast to London’s Elizabeth Tower where the bell, fondly known as Big Ben, chimes every hour. That clock is tuned to 100,000th of a second using optic sensors, computer charts, and, surprisingly, old coins!1

The whole belfry shudders when the 31,000-pound bell chimes at about 180 decibels-- emitting more sound than a jet taking off!2, 3 In the mid-1800’s, the tower was commissioned to be “the biggest, the most powerful chiming clock in the world” and accurate to within two seconds a week. It is certainly no longer the biggest, Abraj Al Bait (in Saudi Arabia) currently holds that title, with a clock face stretching to 141 feet in diameter perched on the third-tallest building in the world. That clock does not chime, which is a good thing because it sits atop the hotel’s main tower.4

To maintain Big Ben’s accuracy, small adjustments accommodate the:

  1. Internal Environment: Small temperature changes in the clock room cause the metal gears to expand and contract throwing off the mechanics by split seconds. Though just outside the operating parameters, a staff member can simply add or remove weight to the clock’s swinging pendulum. A single penny, yes, a penny, is enough to increase the center of gravity and speed up the pendulum, realigning all four clock faces to Greenwich Mean Time! Caught early, small misses can be addressed with small adjustments. What are your operating parameters? How are you monitoring your performance?
  2. External Influences: The minute hand of each clock face displayed on Elizabeth Tower is made of copper and is 14 feet long or “as tall as a double-decker bus”. Ian Westworth, the man responsible for manually winding Big Ben’s clock says, “In a good gust of wind, they as like sails.” So, counterweights are employed to literally pull the hour and minute hands around the clock faces with precision preventing the wind and an opportunistic bird from impacting the accuracy. What measures do you have in place to prevent inaccuracies? Who are your experts and how are you investing in them?

Measuring even minor deviations in the form of internal environment and external influence is key to making early adjustments. Consider the far-reaching impact on a team who is now encouraged to be more accountable or celebrate teamwork. Think about the impact slight market fluctuations or seasons of tension have on your work, your colleagues, and your clients. As leaders, we know smaller changes are easier to design and communicate. Our teams are better able to acclimate and get back on target when they are invited to engage in slight improvements over time.

Sources: YouTube: The Mechanical Genius of Big Ben (7m 59s); 2 Purdue University: Noise Sources and Their Effects; 3 The Sun: Big Ben Facts; 4 Wikipedia: Abraj Al Bait (pronounced Abrāǧ al-Bayt, meaning “Towers of the House”).

by Michelle Sugerman • Leading Synergies, LLC • © All Rights Reserved

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