Clock towers are a specific type of structure that house a turret clock and have one or more clock faces on the upper exterior walls. Many clock towers are freestanding structures but they can also adjoin or be located on top of another building. Some other buildings also have clock faces on their exterior but these structures serve other main functions.

A clock tower in Erbil

Clock towers are a common sight in many parts of the world with some being iconic buildings. One example is the Elizabeth Tower in London (usually called "Big Ben", although strictly this name belongs only to the bell inside the tower).


Sarajevo Clock Tower
A clock tower in the Helsinki Central Station

There are many structures that may have clocks or clock faces attached to them and some structures have had clocks added to an existing structure. According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat a structure is defined as a building if at least fifty percent of its height is made up of floor plates containing habitable floor area. Structures that do not meet this criterion, are defined as towers. A clock tower historically fits this definition of a tower and therefore can be defined as any tower specifically built with one or more (often four) clock faces and that can be either freestanding or part of a church or municipal building such as a town hall. Not all clocks on buildings therefore make the building into a clock tower.

The mechanism inside the tower is known as a turret clock. It often marks the hour (and sometimes segments of an hour) by sounding large bells or chimes, sometimes playing simple musical phrases or tunes. Some clock towers were previously built as Bell towers and then had clocks added to them. As these structures fulfil the definition of a tower they can be considered to be clock towers.


Presumably the first depiction of a medieval central European clock tower (without the actual turret clock) in the 13th century by Villard de Honnecourt, entitled: "cest li masons don orologe" ("this is the house of a clock")

Although clock towers are today mostly admired for their aesthetics, they once served an important purpose. Before the middle of the twentieth century, most people did not have watches, and prior to the 18th century even home clocks were rare. The first clocks did not have faces, but were solely striking clocks, which sounded bells to call the surrounding community to work or to prayer. They were therefore placed in towers so the bells would be audible for a long distance. Clock towers were placed near the centres of towns and were often the tallest structures there. As clock towers became more common, the designers realized that a dial on the outside of the tower would allow the townspeople to read the time whenever they wanted.

The Tower of the Winds in Athens, built c. 50 BC during Roman Greece
Clock Tower, Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, India

The use of clock towers dates back to antiquity. The earliest clock tower was the Tower of the Winds in Athens, which featured eight sundials and was created in the 1st century BC during the period of Roman Greece. In its interior, there was also a water clock (or clepsydra), driven by water coming down from the Acropolis.[1]

In Song dynasty China, an astronomical clock tower was designed by Su Song and erected at Kaifeng in 1088, featuring a liquid escapement mechanism.[2] In England, a clock was put up in a clock tower, the medieval precursor to Big Ben, at Westminster, in 1288;[3][4] and in 1292 a clock was put up in Canterbury Cathedral.[3] The oldest surviving turret clock formerly part of a clock tower in Europe is the Salisbury Cathedral clock, completed in 130. A clock put up at St. Albans, in 1326, 'showed various astronomical phenomena'.[3]

Al-Jazari of the Artuqid dynasty in Upper Mesopotamia constructed an elaborate clock and described it in his Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices in 1206. It was about 3.3 metres (11 feet) high, and had multiple functions alongside timekeeping. It included a display of the zodiac and the solar and lunar paths, and a pointer in the shape of the crescent moon that travelled across the top of a gateway, moved by a hidden cart and causing automatic doors to open, each revealing a mannequin, every hour.[5][6] It was possible to re-program the length of day and night daily in order to account for the changing lengths of day and night throughout the year, and it also featured five robotic musicians who automatically play music when moved by levers operated by a hidden camshaft attached to a water wheel.

Line (mains) synchronous tower clocks were introduced in the United States in the 1920s.


Big Ben is the common name for the Elizabeth Tower at the north end (right) of the Palace of Westminster in London

Some clock towers have become famous landmarks. Prominent examples include Elizabeth Tower built in 1859, which houses the Great Bell (generally known as Big Ben) in London,[7] the tower of Philadelphia City Hall, the Rajabai Tower in Mumbai, the Spasskaya Tower of the Moscow Kremlin, the Torre dell'Orologio in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy, the Peace Tower of the Parliament of Canada in Ottawa, and the Zytglogge clock tower in the Old City of Bern, Switzerland.


Old Joe in Birmingham, England – the tallest freestanding clock tower in the world

The tallest freestanding clock tower in the world is the Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower (Old Joe) at the University of Birmingham in Birmingham, United Kingdom.[8] The tower stands at 100 metres (330 feet) tall and was completed in 1908. The clock tower of Philadelphia City Hall was part of the tallest building in the world from 1894,[9] when the tower was topped out and the building partially occupied,[10][11] until 1908.

Taller buildings have had clock faces added to their existing structure such as the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, with a clock added in 2000. The building has a roof height of 187.68 m (615.7 ft), and an antenna height of 237 m (778 ft). The NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building in Tokyo, with a clock added in 2002, has a roof height of 240 m (790 ft), and an antenna height of 272 m (892 ft).

The Abraj Al Bait, a hotel complex in Mecca constructed in 2012, has the largest and highest clock face on a building in the world, with its Makkah Royal Clock Tower having an occupied height of 494.4 m (1,622 ft), and a tip height of 601 m (1,972 ft).[12] The tower has four clock faces, two of which are 43 m (141 ft) in diameter, at about 400 m (1,300 ft) high.[13]

Shibpur Bishops College, Clock Tower

See also



  1. ^ Noble, Joseph V.; de Solla Price, Derek J. (1968). "The Water Clock in the Tower of the Winds". American Journal of Archaeology. 72 (4): 345–355 (353). doi:10.2307/503828. JSTOR 503828. S2CID 193112893.
  2. ^ Bodde, Derk (1991), Chinese Thought, Society, and Science, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, p. 140.
  3. ^ a b c Clocks, Encyclopædia Britannica 5, 835 (1951).
  4. ^ Frederick Tupper, Jr., 'Anglo-Saxon Dæg-Mæl', Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 10, No. 2 (1895), p. 130, citing Archæologia, v, 416.
  5. ^ Howard R. Turner (1997), Science in Medieval Islam: An Illustrated Introduction, p. 184. University of Texas Press, ISBN 0-292-78149-0.
  6. ^ Donald Routledge Hill, "Mechanical Engineering in the Medieval Near East", Scientific American, May 1991, p. 64-69. (cf. Donald Routledge Hill, Mechanical Engineering Archived December 25, 2007, at the Wayback Machine)
  7. ^ "UK Parliament - Big Ben". Retrieved 2009-10-27.
  8. ^ "Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower". Skyscraper News. Archived from the original on 1 July 2018. Retrieved 15 April 2014.
  9. ^ "National Register of Historic Places Inventory - Nomination Form". (archive) National Park Service. page 10. Retrieved November 9, 2017. "The statue was … hoisted to the top of the tower in fourteen sections in 1894."
  10. ^ ""History of City Hall: 1886-1890". (archive) Retrieved November 9, 2017. "1889: Mayor Fitler moves into completed offices on west side."
  11. ^ "History of City Hall: 1891-1901". (archive) Retrieved November 9, 2017. "1891: State Supreme Court opens in permanent courtroom."
  12. ^ "Makkah Royal Clock Tower ". Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. Retrieved May 20, 2018.
  13. ^ "Dokaae Tower Clock And Crescent" Archived 2012-03-04 at the Wayback Machine. Premier Composite Technologies. Retrieved May 21, 2018.