From the June/July 2017 Issue

Big Ben

Writer Ren Miller

A “beautiful and punctual sleepmeter”.

It was the reason you woke up each morning, the first sound you heard, the first thing you reached for and, no, it wasn’t your spouse. It was the Big Ben alarm clock that sat on your nightstand until digital clocks stole your heart away.

Now Big Ben’s classic good looks are attracting new fans, even among those with a throw-the-blasted-thing-out-the-window relationship with alarm clocks.

Big Ben has had a storied life. Western Clock Manufacturing Co. in Peru, Illinois, received a patent in 1908 for the “Big Ben” alarm clock movement, the first with a bell mechanism integral to the clock’s case rather than separate. The company introduced the wind-up clock in 1909 and advertised it nationally for the first time in 1910. The price: $2.50 (a significant investment considering average workers made about $500 per year in 1910) and available only from jewelers. The first Big Ben ad, published in The Saturday Evening Post, was masterfully written, describing the clock as a “thin, beautiful and punctual sleepmeter with a silent motor that will not annoy you on your lie-awake nights and a deep musical voice that will call you on your sleepiest mornings.” Who could refuse?

Big Ben and his little brother, Baby Ben, are the most popular alarm clocks ever sold, thanks in part to their design, performance and, notably, to a campaign developed by Gaston LeRoy, the company’s advertising manager. According to the Westclox Big Ben and Baby Ben Identification Guide by Richard Tjarks and Bill Stoddard, LeRoy recognized that Western Clock Manufacturing Co. had been associated with cheap alarm clocks so he recommended naming the new product “Big Ben” (let’s not forget the respected but unrelated Big Ben clock tower at the Palace of Westminster in London). LeRoy’s advertising referred to Big Ben as “he” and tried to make the clock appear as a friend or part of the family.

To remain current, the design is updated periodically with a new case material or dial color or a different ring (the Loud Alarm models have an intermittent feature and a loud ring, for example, while the Chime Alarm models start out with a slow ding-dingding-ding-dingding and change to a steady ring if the alarm isn’t shut off). However, the clock’s designers have been careful to keep the look recognizable: round or oval case (earlier ones with a ring handle on top), simple legs or pedestal, and easy-to-read dials. There have been exceptions, of course: the first electric Big Bens in 1931 had black Bakelite (composition) or mahogany cases with squared sides and bottom and an arched top. But say “Big Ben alarm clock,” and the classic shape pictured above is what comes to mind.

Ownership of the brand has been fluid over the past century. Western Clock Manufacturing Co. used its modern trademark, Westclox, on Big Ben alarm clocks beginning in 1910. In 1931 Western Clock merged with Seth Thomas Clock Co., and both became divisions of General Time Corp. General Time declared bankruptcy in 2001 and sold the Westclox name to Salton Inc. Tjarks and Stoddard’s history of Big Ben alarm clocks is a good source for identifying who made antique and vintage Big Bens and what differs on each model.

That history, available at ClockHistory.com, includes a warning that bears repeating for anyone who searches for antique and vintage models: “Most older clocks and watches with luminous dials contain radium, a hazardous radioactive substance proven to cause cancer, and which produces radon gas … Under no CIRCUMSTANCES should children be permitted to play with, or take apart, luminous timepieces.”