Time to be counted

Detailed lowdown of what's going on in Wales

The most notable part of the Welsh Assembly election campaign so far is the exceptionally good weather. Canvassers have reported a good natured reception from electors basking in the sun, alas many of these voters still remain undecided as to how they will vote, if they vote at all, and a number have expressed a level of confusion as to what we all stand for. A confusion that is only enhanced by the huge amount of paper that has been thrown at them in many areas.

The most common comment on phone-ins is that very few people have met a real politician in the flesh, and there is a certain truth to that as the parties work out their differences on the television, radio, the internet and through letterboxes. The problem is that a large chunk of Wales does not watch Welsh TV or read a Welsh newspaper. As far as they are concerned it is 'election, what election?'

Despite all of that those voters I talk to, and I have been on doorsteps every night since the beginning of March, are anxious to engage with the politicians and take advantage of what the Assembly can do for them. Most are now familiar with the fact that there are two ballot papers and are showing signs of thinking quite deeply as to how they use this double opportunity. It seems clear to me that there will be an increased turnout but how this will impact upon the result is anybody's guess.

The absence of regular polling as in Scotland means that both politicians and media are working in a vacuum. Those polls that have been published are largely contradictory and every time I speak to an opposition politician they express genuine puzzlement as to how the pollsters could have secured the outcome they did. One senior Labour Assembly Member contesting a marginal seat told me that he could find no evidence of a swing to Plaid Cymru at all despite the fact that a recent poll shows the nationalists as being ready to consolidate their position as the second largest party. He and other Labour Party AMs repeat the mantra that their vote is solid and that the Labour meltdown forecast by many will not come about at all.

The truth is most probably somewhere in between. My experience is that there is a certain level of disillusionment with Labour and that people are turning away from them. In many instances this will result in an abstention, in many others it will translate into a vote for the dominant opposition party in a constituency. Labour will lose seats but the impact of those losses will be largely offset by gains at a regional level. It is possible that Labour will end up with no constituency seats at all in the Mid and West Wales region for example. The outcome in my view is that Labour will remain the largest party with between 24 and 26 seats.

What is interesting about this campaign is the way that David Cameron's reformed Conservatives have failed to gel with the electorate. There is no doubt that they will pick up constituency seats such as Cardiff North, but by no means certain that they will gain everything that they expect. Their little local difficulty in Clwyd West, where their candidate called for schools to teach creationism as part of science classes for example, may well be enough to allow Labour's Alun Pugh to survive what a few weeks ago seemed a certain loss. I think that on balance Plaid will just pip the Tories in the number of Assembly seats.

Prospects for the Welsh Liberal Democrats look good. Gains by other parties will enable us to pick up one or two regional seats, whilst the constituency of Ceredigion still remains on a knife edge. Our vote will be up once more and we will increase the size of our Assembly group.

In many ways the most interesting times look to be the weeks after the election during which various parties will be vying for a piece of the action in any future coalition government. Although the presence of a limited proportional voting system means that coalitions are mostly inevitable that does not mean that all politicians and party members accept the reality of that situation. Already we have seen parties trying to limit their own options prior to the election so as to avoid losing votes. How it will all end up is not down to us but to the electorate.

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.