British society has always tended to bubble over into violence

Those who pin the blame for the riots on contemporary conditions alone are missing the point.

It was, I suppose, inevitable that media comment in the wake of Tottenham and other recent riots would present them as a direct result of specific contemporary conditions. A typical example is provided by Melanie Phillips in today's Mail, who identifies it, without citing any particular evidence, as the "outcome of a three-decade liberal experiment which tore up virtually every basic social value". However, even some of those commentators locating the cause elsewhere implicate entirely modern phenomena: the pressure of mass-media consumerism, for example.

Unfortunately for this kind of analysis, there is plenty of evidence that British society has always tended to bubble over into violence, riot and looting, irrespective of the shape of that society at the time. The idea that the presence of "basic social value[s]" prevented such behaviour in the past does not stand up to scrutiny. In June 1940 a combination of wartime xenophobia and privation led to an outbreak of looting, burning and destruction aimed at Italian businesses in cities across England and Scotland. This is today almost forgotten, but its wartime context does not excuse the crossing of boundaries it represented.

Riots and disturbances were common enough in the mediaeval period, often breaking out into armed insurrection. But even the supposedly compact and ordered society of the 18th and 19th centuries was not immune. 1778's Gordon Riots were amongst the most violently destructive in London's history; they were triggered by a protest against the softening of anti-Catholic legislation, but were fanned by a dire economic situation, itself caused by Britain exhausting itself in a series of foreign wars. Lurid accounts exist of rioters setting fire to buildings and drinking themselves into a stupor. Even young children were swept up in events, subsequently undergoing the same treatment as adults in the usual response of the time, as several were hung afterwards: "I never saw children cry so," recorded a bystander.

Of course, the fact that riots have occurred in all times and in all kinds of society has failed to prevent attempts to argue the contrary. The Mail also quoted Desmond Morris, stating that humans are "programmed" to live in villages, and that rioting is an urban phenomenon - a different facet of the narrative that such violence is fundamentally a modern issue.

Perhaps Morris has never heard of the "Swing" Riots of 1830, in which agricultural workers burnt barns, hayricks, threshing machines and rural workhouses across Southern England and the Midlands in a protest against the increasing financial pressure on the rural poor: again, executions and transportations followed in their wake, while as with the Gordon Riots, the media of the time raised the spectre of foreign agitation. It was difficult to admit the thought that normal British subjects might, under particular conditions and fuelled by adrenaline, completely lose their heads.

Those familiar with the history of Wales will know of the Rebecca Riots of the late 1830s and 1840s, another fundamentally rural phenomenon. Groups of men, often dressed as women or masked to disguise themselves, attacked and destroyed tollgates in protest against a continuing squeeze on the incomes of farmers and smallholders. In this case, most of the rioters were never caught, perhaps because there was widespread agreement with their actions; "Rebecca" became well-known in Welsh history as an example of standing up to English economic influence.

The incidents that triggered these riots were often as widely different as the areas in which they occurred. Even so, there is one unifying factor: economic pressure. All took place against a background of falling incomes, increasing costs, and rising resentment. Moreover, the response - prior to the 20th century, at least - was always the same. In previous centuries, we sent in the army; men were transported for life; we hung children for joining in looting; yet riots continued, despite the inevitability of punishment, because little was done to mitigate the cause along with attempting to restore order. It would be good to think that we, as a society, have progressed since that point.

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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.