Whether through design, architecture or function, this is our choice of the top ten most famous clocks in the world. All are closely linked to the social and political history of their locations or commemorate a specific event in world history. Many are so iconic that a mere mention of their parent city conjures their image in the minds eye. Each example features unique design elements or an iconic look that defines the character of their surroundings. Although they are no longer the only reliable timepiece for local inhabitants, their importance as landmarks is undiminished.
Probably the world’s most famous clock, Big Ben is instantly recognisable and a symbol of Britain to the world. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987, it was completed in its distinctive neo-Gothic style in 1859. The name technically refers to the largest of the five bells housed in the clock tower. This was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. At 315 feet tall, it was the largest four faced chiming clock in the world when completed. It was also the most accurate clock of its kind and the original Victorian mechanism is still in use. Although silent at the moment, renovations will be completed in 2021 and the distinctive chimes will ring out again.
This is a campanile (free standing bell tower) forming part of the Canadian parliament buildings in Ottawa, Ontario. It replaced the Victoria Tower that burned down in 1916 and was conceived as a memorial to Canadian servicemen killed in the Great War. Stained glass commemorates their battles along with engraved plaques made from brass shell casings and stone from European battlefields collected by the architect. A 53 bell carillion contains bells weighing from just 4.5 kg to 10,000 kg, played with a keyboard similarly to a piano. Each sounds a different note when struck by an internal clapper, allowing a multitude of tunes to be played.
Originally built in 1410, this is mounted on the southern wall of the Old Town Hall in the Old Town Square in Prague, Czech Republic. It is the third oldest astronomical clock in the world and thought to be the oldest operational clock in existence. Its astronomical dial has 21 different functions, including movement of the moon, lunar phase and position of the sun through the day. Four animated figures representing Death, Vanity, Lust and Greed flank the clock face, moving in response to Death ringing a bell on the hour. Additionally, each hour two shuttered windows above the face open and painted statues of the twelve Apostles move in procession past them. During renovation in 2018, an electric mechanism from the 1940s was replaced by an original 1860s clockwork mechanism.
Located on the Alexanderplatz in Berlin, Germany, the Urania World Clock stands on the site of a wrecked pre 1940s clock discovered in 1966. It was opened to the public in 1969 to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the GDR. Standing over 10 metres high, its design could not be further from a traditional clock tower. Above a stone mosaic depicting a compass rose stands a 2.7 metre column with four attached clock faces. This is surmounted by a 24 sided drum, with each face representing a world time zone. 148 cities are listed according to time zone and a numbered cylinder rotates in the middle. By observing the relevant time zone and its position relative to the numbered column, the approximate time for a listed city can be measured. The whole structure is topped by a steel model of the solar system which rotates once each minute.
Built between 1869 and 1878, the Rajabai Clock Tower stands in the grounds of the Fort campus of the University of Mumbai, India. Designed by the English architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, its Venetian Gothic design was inspired by Big Ben. With a height of 85 metres, it was the tallest building in Mumbai when first built. During the Raj, it played sixteen different tunes, including ‘God Save The King’ and ‘Rule Britannia’, changing four times a day. The tower was mainly constructed from local Kurla stone, with additional limestone sculptures and impressive stained glass windows. It was added to the list of World Heritage Sites in 2018, but is sadly closed to the public after a spate of suicides on site.
The red brick Spasskaya Tower stands over the gates to Red Square and is the official entrance to the Kremlin. Since the 16th century it has housed several iterations of the Moscow Clock, including one bought by Peter The Great which took 30 wagons to transport. Nine bells, weighing between 705 lbs and 4,700 lbs ring the chimes, many of them decorated with religious icons and bas reliefs. These were supplemented in 1995 with three metal beats to allow the clock to play the Soviet national anthem. The current face is an exact copy of the original, restored in 1932 using 28 kg of gold to cover the numerals and hands. Each New Years Eve, millions of Russians watch the president give his Ney Year speech just before the clock rings in the new year for all of Russia.
Familiar to millions of moviegoers and one of the worlds ten most visited tourist attractions, Grand Central hosts two magnificent clocks. The 18 sided Main Concourse information booth is topped by a brass sphere with four 24 inch clock faces. These are made from opalescent glass and were for years rumoured to be pure opal worth millions of pounds. One is a 1990s replica, replacing the original face damaged by a police bullet in 1968 during a chase through the station. The clock itself is set to the United States Naval Observatory’s atomic clock and accurate to one billionth of a second. The south façade of the building facing the world famous 42nd Street, boasts a 13 foot wide clock face. Surrounded by a 48 foot wide sculpture depicting Minerva, Hercules and Hermes, the clock face itself is the worlds largest example of Tiffany Glass.
Built for the YES ’89 Yokohama Exposition in Japan, Cosmo Clock 21 is a giant ferris wheel with a 100 metre diameter. While its claim to be the worlds largest clock is disputed, it features the worlds largest digital clock face at its centre. The wheel itself has 60 spokes to denote the 60 one minute marks on a traditional clock face. It also has 60 passenger gondolas, holding 480 riders and revolves once every fifteen minutes, timed to the millisecond. The wheel offers views of the whole city, especially from the two clear gondolas, but is not for the faint of heart. At night, the spokes are illuminated every fifteen minutes, becoming giant fireworks, spirals and flowers.
More correctly known as the Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower, this campanile is located at the University of Birmingham, England. Standing in the Chancellor’s Court, it is the tallest free standing clock tower in the world at 100 metres tall. It was built between 1900 and 1908 to commemorate the first chancellor of the university and modelled on the Torre del Mangia in Siena. The tower foundations extend 328 feet below ground to support its immense weight, including the clock bells that weigh 20 tonnes combined. It was built from the inside without scaffolding or pointing from local red brick and is four courses thick at the corners to withstand wind forces. The tower is believed to have been the inspiration for the tower of Orthanc in The Lord of the Rings and the clock tower in Pixar’s Monsters university.
Part of the Abraj Al-Bait hotel complex in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, this is the tallest structure in the country. The four faces of the clock at its apex are visible from 16 Miles away. At 43m wide, they are the largest clock faces in the world and at a height of 405 metres, it is the worlds most elevated architectural clock. Each face is 35 times larger than the faces of Big Ben, weighing 21 tonnes, with each hand also weighing 6 tonnes. They are each illuminated by 2 million LED lights to be visible up to 19 miles away at night and five times daily an additional 21,000 lights flash to signal prayers. Designed to be a beacon to pilgrims, the clock stands across the piazza from the entrance to the Masjid al Haram Mosque. As Islam’s holiest site, visited by millions of pilgrims each year, this is a fitting tribute to it’s importance.
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