In today’s society the word tech is most often associated with the latest gadgets, apps and mobile phones, or the future of robotics and virtual reality. There is, however, so much more to tech than the now. I’ve recently been looking into London’s use of tech in different times and have found that delving into the past is, in some respects, most interesting. Tech does not stand still for very long, with constant new ideas and groundbreaking science there is never a safe piece. If the technology can’t be adapted, it will be scrapped, with shinier models pushing them into oblivion.

There are two amazing pieces of historic technology in London, however, that have managed to stand the test of time, literally. The Elizabeth Tower clock, known to most by its bell’s nickname Big Ben, and the mechanism used to let vessels through Tower Bridge, both work using fascinating science and have done so for many a years.

Big Ben was ahead of its time (pun intended). Now a common establishing shot for many London-based films, the clock was once seen as the biggest, most accurate four-faced chiming clock in the world. Even today the technology it uses, the technology we all witness from coverage of the tower on every New Year’s Eve, is noteworthy. The intricacy and detail behind its design has given the clock a reputation world-over for incredible reliability. The technology used to power the clock was a world first. It uses an originally unique gravity and special weights system that was invented by amateur clockmaker Edmund Beckett Denison and completed way back in 1859. Interestingly, and in contrast to much of today’s new tech, humans are needed! Manual interaction is required, with the clock being wound-up by hand three times a week.  

In January of this year, a three year renovation process began, which will focus mainly on overdue maintenance work and, at most, adding a much needed lift. However, the actual technology behind what makes it tick will stay as constant as ever, proving it deserves its place in history as a tech anomaly capable of surviving its successors. It is the epitome of future-proof. Besides, who would want to see a digital face on the tower?

The iconic Tower Bridge, another of London’s tourist sightseeing hotspots, is also a fascinating feat of technology. The middle of the bridge is opened up to one thousand times a year to allow vessels to pass through. To achieve this, the bridge uses hydraulics and has done since it was built in the late 19th century. It has, however, been adapted to keep relevant, a necessity in this world-class capital city. Previously using steam to power the pumping engines, which drove the bascules up and down, the system now uses oil and electricity in its place. The old engines and other mechanical elements can still be viewed by the public in the Tower Bridge Exhibition Engine Rooms. Despite the fact that they have now been replaced, even before the change, London’s most iconic bridge could open up to an 86 degree angle in as little as a minute. This goes to show how advanced London was all those years ago. If you would like to see the bridge open, head to their website for upcoming lift times.

Despite the competition continuously posed by the ever-growing tech world, two London landmarks have fought for their place as gold standards and, for now, have retained their status’ as worthy ‘old tech’ that London should be proud of. 

This piece is also published at www.london360.org/author/josepha

London360 Deadbeat Joe Footer

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