Clock tower

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Big Ben, atop Elizabeth Tower, Westminster, London

Clock towers are a common sight in many parts of the world with some being iconic buildings like the one in London commonly called 'Big Ben' (although it is correctly called the Elizabeth Tower as Big Ben is the bell inside the tower). Clock towers are a specific type of building which houses a turret clock and has one or more clock faces on the upper exterior walls. Many clock towers are freestanding structures but they can also be adjoining or on top of another building. The tallest clock tower in the world is the recently constructed Makkah Clock Royal Tower, standing 601 m or 1,971 feet high.


It is important to distinguish between clock towers and other buildings which may have clocks or clock faces attached to them. Many buildings have had clocks added to an existing structure. Although the resulting structure is often seen to be a clock 'tower' they are not the same sort of structure. Therefore:

A clock tower is a tower specifically built with one or more (often four) clock faces. Clock towers can be either freestanding or part of a church or municipal building such as a town hall.

The mechanism inside the tower is known as a turret clock. It often marks the hour (and sometimes segments of an hour) by sounding large bells or chimes, sometimes playing simple musical phrases or tunes.


Although clock towers are today mostly admired for their aesthetics, they once served an important purpose. Before the middle of the twentieth century, most people did not have watches, and prior to the 18th century even home clocks were rare. The first clocks didn't have faces, but were solely striking clocks, which sounded bells to call the surrounding community to work or to prayer. They were therefore placed in towers so the bells would be audible for a long distance. Clock towers were placed near the centres of towns and were often the tallest structures there. As clock towers became more common, the designers realized that a dial on the outside of the tower would allow the townspeople to read the time whenever they wanted.

The use of clock towers dates back to the antiquity. The earliest clock tower was the Tower of the Winds in Athens which featured eight sundials. In its interior, there was also a water clock (or clepsydra), driven by water coming down from the Acropolis.[1] In Song China, an astronomical clock tower was designed by Su Song and erected at Kaifeng in 1088, featuring a liquid escapement mechanism. In England, a clock was put up in a clock tower, the medieval precursor to Big Ben, at Westminster, in 1288;[2][3] and in 1292 a clock was put up in Canterbury Cathedral.[2] The oldest surviving turret clock formerly part of a clock tower in Europe is the Salisbury cathedral clock, completed in 1306; and another clock put up at St. Albans, in 1326, 'showed various astronomical phenomena'.[2]

Line (mains) synchronous tower clocks were introduced in the United States in the 1920s.


Comparison of some notable four-face clocks at the same scale.
Top-left: Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower
Bottom-left: Allen-Bradley Clock Tower (previous record holder)
Middle: Abraj Al Bait
Top-right: Big Ben clock tower
Bottom-right: Kremlin Clock

Some clocks' towers are famously known landmarks. Five of the best-known are Elizabeth Tower built in 1859, which houses the Great Bell (generally known as Big Ben) in London, the Rajabai Tower in Mumbai, the Spasskaya Tower of the Moscow Kremlin, the Torre dell'Orologio in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy, and Zytglogge clock tower in the Old city of Bern, Switzerland.[4] The Royal Mecca Clock Tower in Saudi Arabia is the largest clock tower in the world.[5][6]

On New Year's Eve 2000 four 6.3-m clock faces were added to the top of the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science building in Warsaw, Poland. This building is 231 m (757 ft) tall and is the third tallest clock tower in the world. Makkah Clock Royal Tower is the tallest, and the 240m (787feet) high NTT DoCoMo Yoyogi Building is the second tallest clock tower in the world. The Allen-Bradley Clock Tower is the tallest non-chiming four faced clock tower in the world.

The tallest freestanding clock tower in the world is the Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.[7] The tower stands at 100m and was completed in 1908.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Joseph V. Noble; Derek J. de Solla Price: The Water Clock in the Tower of the Winds, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 72, No. 4 (1968), pp. 345-355 (353)
  2. ^ a b c Clocks, Encyclopaedia Britannica 5, 835 (1951).
  3. ^ Frederick Tupper, Jr., 'Anglo-Saxon Dæg-Mæl', Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 10, No. 2 (1895), p. 130, citing Archæologia, v, 416.
  4. ^ "UK Parliament - Big Ben". Retrieved 2009-10-27. 
  5. ^ Alsharif, Asma (11 August 2010). "World's biggest clock begins ticking in Mecca". Reuters. Retrieved 14 June 2013. 
  6. ^ Walcott, Kingsley. "Historical Watches: Big Ben, The Great Clock". Retrieved 30 August 2013. 
  7. ^ "Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower". Skyscraper News. Retrieved 15 April 2014. 

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