A clock tower is a very specific type of structure that houses a turret clock – a clock specifically designed to be mounted high up in the wall or walls of a building. The earliest clock towers were less timepieces and more scientific instruments. Two thousand years ago in Athens, the Tower of the Winds had eight sundials, while during the Song dynasty in China in the late eleventh century, an intricate astronomical clock tower was built in Kaifeng.
The first purpose-built clock towers were striking clocks, not to tell the time but to ensure people knew it was time to work or pray.
As clock towers became more common, architects and engineers created more sophisticated mechanisms so they could indeed view the time on a visible clock. In fact it wasn’t until after World War I that wrist watches became commonplace, so the town’s clocktower was vital for people to know the time. Even clocks at home were rare before the end of the eighteenth century.
For this article we’re going to include only purpose-built clock towers, rather than tall buildings that have had clocks added later, like the NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building in Japan and the Palace of Culture and Science in Poland. With the rules organised, here are the contenders for largest clock tower in the world.
Rajabai Clock Tower
Location: South Mumbai, India | Height: 85 metres | Built: 1878
India’s tallest clock tower was designed by renowned British architect Sir George Gilbert Scott and modelled on London’s Big Ben. It’s the sixth biggest freestanding clock tower in the world and sits within the campus of the University of Mumbai.
Much of the cost of the project was donated by a wealthy local named Premchand Roychand – who went on to found the Bombay Stock Exchange – on the condition it was named after his mother Rajabai.
Location: London, UK | Height: 96 metres | Built: 1859
More commonly known as Big Ben – the name of the 13.7 tonne bell rather than the tower itself – the Augustus Pugin-designed Elizabeth Tower may not be the largest clock tower in the world but is probably the most iconic.
It was originally called the Clock Tower but was renamed the Elizabeth Tower in 2012 in honour of HM Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee.
Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower
Location: Birmingham, UK | Height: 100 metres | Built: 1908
Old Joe is in the middle of the Chancellor’s court at the University of Birmingham. It may not be the outright world’s biggest clock tower but is the tallest freestanding clock tower in the world. It is also a campanile, more commonly known as a bell tower.
The clock faces are 5.2 metres in diameter and the bell weighs 5.1 tonnes. The tower was built to honour Joseph Chamberlain, the university’s first chancellor.
St. Michael’s Church
Location: Hamburg, Germany | Height: 132 metres | Built: 1786
The Michel, as it is known in Hamburg, is the city’s largest church. Its clock faces are Germany’s largest with a diameter of eight metres, while the minute hands are almost five metres long. For a short time in the early twentieth century it was the second highest clock tower in the world, behind Philadelphia City Hall.
The clock tower is one of Hamburg’s most famous buildings. The Baroque spire is completely covered in copper and for centuries has been used as a landmark for ships sailing the 1,094 kilometre River Elbe.
Philadelphia City Hall
Location: Pennsylvania, USA | Height: 167 metres | Built: 1901
Philadelphia City Hall is one of America’s most iconic buildings. It houses the office of the Mayor of Philadelphia as well as the City Council, and was designed to be the world’s tallest building. However during construction the Eiffel Tower and the Washington Monument both ended up being taller.
It was though the world’s tallest habitable building, and remains the world’s largest freestanding masonry building. It also held the title of the world’s highest clock tower. The clock faces have a diameter of 7.9 metres.
In a tradition that started in 1906, every night at 8.57pm the lights in the tower are turned off and they are turned back on again at the stroke of 9pm. This allowed those people who could see the clock tower but couldn’t see the hands to set their own clocks and watches.
Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower
Location: New York, USA | Height: 213.4 metres | Built: 1909
The Met Life Tower is one of New York’s most iconic office and hotel complexes and is home to four, 8.1 metre diameter clocks located from the 25th to the 27th floors. When they were installed, they were the largest clock faces in the world. A contender for the world’s biggest clock tower, the numerals are 1.2 metres tall and each minute-hand weighs 450 kg.
Makkah Royal Clock Tower
Location: Mecca, Saudi Arabia | Height: 601 metres | Floors: 120
Part of the $15 billion Abraj Al Bait project which opened in 2012, the Makkah Royal Clock Tower is the world’s biggest clock tower and home to a five-star hotel.
It overlooks Mecca’s Grand Mosque, and on the orders of King Abdullah was designed specifically as the tallest in the world. The clock faces, illuminated by two million LED lights, are the largest in the world at 43 metres square. On a clear day the highest clock tower in the world is visible from 25 kilometres away.
The End of the Clock Tower?
Will the height of the biggest clock tower in the world ever be surpassed? Now that we all have clocks on our phones and wrist watches that tell us the time, it seems a shame that these stunning architectural masterpieces may be a thing of the past.
Perhaps we should all spend less time looking down and more time looking up. You never know, wherever you are in the world you may just catch a glimpse of a beautiful old clock tower.