31 December 1923 – Big Ben Chimes broadcast at New Year for the First Time
The first time the chimes of Big Ben were heard outside of their immediate environment was on 31 December 1923, when the BBC broadcast them to the nation, heralding the New Year.
The engineers were not allowed inside the building so had to access the Clock Tower – which houses Big Ben and the four other bells – from the roof of the Palace of Westminster. As a result, their microphone picked up a lot of traffic noise besides the chimes. But a tradition was started and from 1924 – when the Big Ben bongs were broadcast every day – they quickly became synonymous with the BBC.
For regular broadcasting of Big Ben, low sensitivity microphones installed right by the bells were found to be best to avoid picking up the sound of the clock mechanism. During the Second World War the sound of Big Ben was broadcast to occupied Europe and acquired a new meaning, proving to be a great morale booster.
The continuing importance of the Big Ben time signal is revealed by the reaction any time it is interrupted. When the bells were silenced for important repairs in 2017, the live sound of Big Ben heard before the Six O’Clock and Midnight News on Radio 4 was replaced by a recording.
Throughout the restoration – scheduled until 2021 – the Big Ben Bongs will still ring live for important events such as Remembrance Day and New Year, with the sound carried around the world by the BBC.