On 16th October 1834, the Palace of Westminster was destroyed by a fire. A HUGE fire. Londoners came out to watch it, and legend has it, Charles Barry (whom we’ll meet in a moment) was passing by in a coach and stopped to watch for a while.
There were so many spectators, they actually hampered the firemen’s efforts to douse the flames.
When the flames were put out, there wasn’t much left. Only Westminster Hall. Parliament had nowhere to meet and they had to cancel their session.
In November 1835, 13 months later, they set up a committee to re-build and they held a competition for designs.
More than 400 designs were submitted by more than 90 architects.
In the end, the committee chose the design of Charles Barry, but here's a little secret: His original design did NOT include a clock tower! They asked him to revise it and to add a clock tower, of course with a clock inside!
Working with his trusty (but somewhat highly strung) assistant, Augustus Welby Pugin, Charles Barry added a clock tower to his design, along with four faces, and really big bells!
But Charles Barry, quite rightly, asserted that HE was an architect, not a clockmaker. So he asked Benjamin Lous Vuillamy, clockmaker to the Queen, to design a clock.
By this time, it was 1841, so you can’t blame Charlie for wanting to get on with his project. However….ALL the expert clockmakers across Britain were upset that he had asked Benjamin Louis Vuillamy to design the clock, without so much as an open competition.
One clockmaker, Edward Dent, wrote to George Airy, Astonomer Royal, asking him to recommend him for the job. Of course, George Airy did so, and, as a result, the committee decided that George Airy should write up a list of requirements for the Great Clock. They asked him to choose the design and the clockmaker to boot!
George Airy was really excited about his job, and he wrote up a list of requirements that had never been seen before. It was a long list, but the most important requirement was this:
"The Great Clock should be so accurate that the first strike for each hour shall be accurate to within ONE second of time."