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Big Ben silenced for repairs

Parliamentary Works Clock Engineer Paul Roberson climbs over the mechanism of the Great Westminster Clock, the largest striking, most powerful and most accurate clock in the world.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Doug Krizner: Something's missing in London this week: the sound of Big Ben. For the fourth time in a century-and-a-half, the bongs at Britain's Houses of Parliament have been silenced. Ben's getting a tune up to get him ready for his 150th anniversary in 2009. Mike McCann is Keeper of the Great Clock. Mike what are you doing to Big Ben?

Mike McCann: Well the clock was working perfectly I have to say, but the reason we've stopped it is because we have a lot of wear on the bearings of two of the barrels. One controls the clock itself and the other one is the strike or hour train which rings Big Ben, the hour bell, and the bearings in those were getting very, very worn. We believe they're original so they're probably 148 years old just to give you some idea, and like anything mechanical of course it does wear out. The reason we're doing it now is because it's the 150th anniversary of the clock in two years time, so we didn't really want to be doing all this work next year or the year after.

Krizner: So has this wear and tear that you're describing affected the accuracy of the clock?

McCann: Remarkably it hasn't really. We were actually quite surprised when we saw the amount of wear yesterday, but of course one of the reasons for that is the Victorians did what we call over-engineering. Everything they made was twice the size it needed to be, are you with me? So if it had been a modern piece of equipment, it would have stopped years ago I expect. But because it's Victorian and it's all made so well and so large it actually carried on running remarkably well.

Krizner: How long do you think what you're doing will hold?

McCann: Well I mean in theory there's no reason why the work we're doing now shouldn't last 50 years but that's very much what we're aiming for.

Krizner: Mike tell me a little bit about, how do you get to the top of the clock?

McCann: You basically have to climb 292 steps to the clock room. There's no lift so it's quite difficult getting things down. That was one of the big problems on Monday, we had to lower this barrel down basically through the middle of the staircase, which as you can imagine, was quite tricky as the largest one weighs a quarter of a ton.

Krizner: You must be in good shape.

McCann: Oh I like to stay fairly fit, indeed.

Krizner: What kind of reaction have you seen from tourists watching the work?

McCann: Well because the clock will be out of action for about six weeks, we've actually taken the unusual step, and it's never been done before, of installing an electric drive to the clock faces, so three of clock faces are actually working fine at the moment. It's just that we have no bells at all.

Krizner: But they're not hearing any ringing.

McCann: They're not hearing any rings no but with the heavy traffic you get in any major city these days, sometimes it's difficult to hear the rings anyway I'm afraid.

Krizner: Mike McCann is Keeper of the Great Clock. Hey Mike, thanks so much for talking with us.

McCann: It's been a pleasure.

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