Volunteers continue to assemble an installation in the moat of the Tower of London to commemorate the First World War. Photograph: Getty Images.
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To remember the First World War we need lively debate as well as silent tributes

Our democracy expanded, society became less deferential, the trade union movement grew and our politics would never be the same.

It takes something significant to bring the noisy and fast-moving world we live in today to a silent stop. We live in an age of now, all leading frenetic lives with constant demands on our time. Rarely do we pause to reflect on events that took place long before our parents or grandparents were born. 
 
Tonight we will experience one of those moments, when Big Ben chimes 11 o’clock and marks 100 years since Britain entered the First World War on 4 August 1914. It was a conflict that changed the world forever and helped shape the lives we lead today. More than 16 million soldiers and civilians across the globe would not live to see peace in 1918.
 
Some believe they died in a conflict that though appalling, was necessary and needed to be fought. Others argue their sacrifice was futile, in a war that achieved nothing, and could and should have been avoided. My hope is that the commemorations taking place today and over the next four years will give us each a precious opportunity to make up our own minds and reflect on our shared history.
 
Anniversaries like this are essentially the closest thing our society ever has to a national history lesson. Not one where governments or politicians should hand down official judgements on events from 100 years ago, but one where we can each explore this traumatic chapter in our national story in an inclusive and democratic way. There were 16,000 towns and villages across Britain in 1914, but only 40 of them would reach 1918 without having lost someone in the conflict. It means each community has its own story to tell.
 
As I’ve travelled across the country I’ve met people of all ages who are researching their own family histories and learning about the impact the war had on the places where they live. This includes tales of heroes and heroines from the home front as well as the frontline. Stories of miners, factory and railway workers who kept our country going, of volunteers who worked the land and nurses who cared for the wounded.
 
Hearing their stories has made me revisit my own family tree. Scouring family archives with the help of my aunt, I discovered my own family connection – a previously unknown great great uncle who fought in the 16th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He was christened "Nimrod" but enlisted under the name of John for reasons that nobody now knows. He would become one of the 900,000 British and the Commonwealth soldiers who never returned home, killed in Belgium on 7 October 1917. It is hard to imagine what horrors he must have experienced, even as someone who has experienced combat myself.
 
The First World War contains millions of stories like his, including many that reach far beyond the poppy fields of Flanders. Two examples will stay with me as I travel to Glasgow ahead of this morning’s national memorial service.
 
The first is the immense debt we owe to millions of soldiers from the nations whose inspiring athletes we have watched competing in the Commonwealth Games over the past eleven days. They included men from India, Australia, Canada, parts of Africa, and countless other countries. Many had never been to Britain but they came to fight for Britain in our hour of need.
 
The second example is the story of a woman called Mary Barbour. A century ago she lived in Glasgow’s Govan district, just a few miles from the venue for last night’s closing ceremony. When her husband David left for the frontline, she was left to look after their two young sons. With so many men away, the city’s private landlords sensed an opportunity and began hiking the rents of Mary and her neighbours. They messed with the wrong woman. Working with her friends, Mary organised a rent strike and led tenants in a protest that grew into 20,000 people. They became known as "Mrs Barbour’s Army."
 
The government was forced to rush through immediate reforms to protect people from unfair rent increases, one of the many ways that the First World War changed the role of the state in our public life. Mrs Barbour would go on to become Glasgow’s first female Labour councillor. She didn’t even have a vote when the war broke out, but she was one of the millions of women who would help change that by entering the war effort and taking on roles that only men had ever done before.
 
Her story is an example of the social, political and economic forces that transformed Britain between 1914 and 1918. Our democracy expanded, society became less deferential, the trade union movement grew and our politics would never be the same.
 
The next four years provide us with an opportunity to explore all of this and more, and pass these memories on to future generations. That process should start tonight with silent and respectful tributes. But there should also be space for lively debate and discussion about how the echoes of the First World War continue to shape our lives today. That would be time well spent.
 
Dan Jarvis is the Shadow Justice Minister and Labour’s lead for the First World War centenary.

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former Major in the Parachute Regiment.

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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.