Big Ben: London’s Clock Tower as a landmark

Big Ben

Big Ben is one of the most popular landmarks of the British capital and is one of London’s calling cards. It is the name by which the world knows one of the three towers of the Palace of Westminster, the seat of Parliament of the United Kingdom, located on the banks of the River Thames.

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Video: Big Ben

Highlights

In a narrow sense, Big Ben refers to the 13-ton bell inside it, and the structure itself was officially renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the current British monarch’s enthronement.

Tourists coming to London consider it their duty to visit this landmark or at least look at Big Ben from afar. But “visiting” does not mean being in the tower. At present its inner rooms for foreigners are closed, sometimes only local officials and representatives of the media get access there. The authorities have imposed strict measures for security reasons, and we will tell you about the reasons for such restrictions below.

But no matter how well-intentioned the restrictions may have been, they have had no impact on the popularity of Big Ben. Travelers from all over the world always find a free minute to come here and admire the architectural splendor of the tower. And of course, check the time: Big Ben is rightly considered the most accurate clock in the world!

Big Ben in the Fog Tour bus on its way to Big Ben

History of Big Ben

Construction of the Clock Tower at the Palace of Westminster, as it was called before it was renamed, began in 1837. The author of the project was the famous English architect Augustes Pugin. At that time Queen Victoria, who had ruled the British Empire for 63 years, had just ascended the throne. Then the Houses of Parliament, damaged in 1834 by a major fire, were reconstructed. The new tower structure located in the northern part of the Palace of Westminster has enriched its architectural complex and made its appearance even more recognizable.

In terms of its parameters, St. Stephen’s Tower (the landmark’s second name) is inferior to its “older sister” – the 98-meter high Victoria Tower, which is located in the southwestern part of the palace. Its height together with the spire is 96.3 meters. The first 61 meters of the tower is made of brick, while the outer cladding (siding) is made of Estonian limestone, which has been used in construction for 700 years. The remaining 35.3 meters is a cast-iron spire. The base of the tower is a concrete foundation, 4 meters deep.

View of Big Ben from Victoria Tower in 1920

Big Ben is also thinner than Victoria Tower. However, despite its relatively smaller size, it almost immediately won the sympathy of Londoners and visitors alike. The architect built the building in the Gothic style with a certain charisma, which has always attracted attention for so many years. And the master also incorporated features from one of his earlier works, the Scarisbrick Hall Tower. Only he never got to see his own creation in his lifetime: Big Ben became Pugin’s last design work. The architect soon became seriously ill and passed away.

The secret of Big Ben’s popularity lies not only in the peculiarities of the tower as such. It is famous above all for its legendary clock, which stands 55 meters above the ground. The diameter of the steel-framed dials is enormous: 7 meters. The length of the hands, 2.7 meters for the hour and 4.2 meters for the minute, is also impressive. For a long time this chronometer was the biggest in the world. When the Allen-Bradley clock tower in Milwaukee (Wisconsin, USA) was commissioned in 1962, the London celebrity had to relinquish the palm.

Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster

Dials and clockwork

There are four faces on Big Ben, corresponding to the four corners of the earth, facing north, south, west and east. The big hour hands are made of iron-carbon alloy (cast-iron) and the minute hands are of lighter and thinner copper plate. The material of the dials is a mineraloid known as Birmingham opal. Only the opal glass in Big Ben’s dials is not solid, it is “broken” into 312 separate pieces. This fragmentation or mosaicism visually gives them the appearance of windows. But that’s not the main point: these pieces are easy to take out, allowing you to get inside the dials and perform inspections or some preventive measures if necessary.

The Greenwich Mean Time clocks of Big Ben are the most accurate clocks not only in Foggy Albion, but also in the world. How is their impeccable running ensured and maintained? To answer this question, let us look back to the origins. The designers of the chronometer were people who had very little to do with this business. Apart from Edmund Beckett Denison, the watchmaker (and even that amateur), George Airy, the lawyer, and the royal astronomer had a hand in the project. The clock movement was assembled by master watchmaker Edward John Dent in 1854.

The clockwork of Big Ben The back side of the dial

The construction of the tower itself was still in progress, so it was up to the watchmaker Denison, a very imaginative man, to experiment. He risked giving up the aperiodic movement of the key that winds the clock. This was despite the fact that it was part of the design. Instead, he developed a double three-stage movement which allowed for optimum separation between the clockwork and the pendulum. The latter was installed inside a windproof and moisture-proof box, which is located below the clock room. It is 3.9 metres long and weighs 300 kilograms, two tonnes less than the movement. The pendulum swings every two seconds.

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So back to the question of the accuracy of Big Ben’s clock. From time to time it lags, and this is a well-known fact. But there’s no problem with that. And it’s all thanks to… the English penny. When the chronometer begins to “cheat”, the pendulum is simply loaded with an antique penny weighing one and a half grams. It is difficult to say right away what laws of physics are involved, but such “intervention” is guaranteed to speed up the clock by 2.5 seconds a day. The watchmaker, having achieved precision in this way, then removes the coin until the next time. The clock mechanism has never failed in 150 years, proving its reliability. It is periodically serviced and some parts are replaced. Every two days, the movement is thoroughly lubricated. But in general, its design remains unchanged.

During the two world wars, Big Ben’s clock operated in a special mode. In 1916-1918 the bell did not strike the time and the illumination of the tower was switched off at night. It has not been lit since September 1, 1939, when Hitler’s Germany treacherously attacked Poland, unleashing the bloodiest world war in the history of mankind. It is true that the clock worked properly and even the bell rang. In June 1941, during the bombing of London by Nazi aircraft, the main British chimes were damaged. But fortunately they were not serious, and the chronometer continued to run. Then it was stopped for a day, but only to repair the St. Stephen’s Tower itself.

The Bells of the Clock Tower

The largest bell in the Elizabeth Tower is the main one, Big Ben, which gave its name to the structure. It was cast on August 6, 1856 by John Warner & Sons in Stockton-on-Tees, northeast England. The 16-tonne machine was driven to the tower on a cart pulled by 16 horses. The event was so significant that an enthusiastic crowd accompanied the cart all the way. Their joy was premature: when the bell was tested, it cracked. We had to send it in for repair. On April 10, 1858 it was cast anew at the Whitechapel factory. The second bell turned out to be “thinner” and weighed 13.76 tons.

It took almost a whole day to raise the giant to the tower. It was heavy and overall: 2,2 meters high and 2,9 meters wide. And then it happened: on May 31, 1859 Londoners first heard the ringing of Big Ben. And although the weight of the striking hammer was also reduced, the bell cracked again after two months. They didn’t cast it anew and limited themselves to “cosmetic” repairs, which lasted 3 years. All this time the bell was silent.

The bells of Big Ben from above.

First they made a kerf in the form of a square, which would have prevented further spreading of the crack. Then the bell itself was turned around to keep the hammer from hitting the damage. The presence of the defect just creates a unique resonant sound, thanks to which the Big Ben ringing is not confused with any other. Since then, residents and visitors to the city on the Thames have heard it every 60 minutes, and the first strike of the hammer coincides with the first second of the new hour.

The main bell is surrounded by smaller bells. Every fifteen minutes they play the tune “Westminster Quarters”, also known as “Cambridge Chimes”, after the church of St. Mary the Great (Cambridge). They beat out the rhythm of this saying: “In this hour the Lord protects me, and his power will not let anyone fall away. On December 31, 1923, the chime of the Clock Tower at the Palace of Westminster was first heard on BBC Radio, now the world’s largest broadcaster by audience reach. Since then, the sound of Big Ben has been heard twice during the day on BBC Radio: at 6:00 p.m. and at midnight. Interestingly, it is not broadcast from a pre-recorded tape, but live. This is made possible thanks to the microphone installed inside the tower.

View of Big Ben from the Queen Walk promenade

Origin of the name

The Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster, St. Stephen’s Tower, and finally Elizabeth Tower are the official names of the landmark. But where did the name “Big Ben”, which has also become the most famous, come from? There are several versions on this subject. Let’s dwell on it in more detail.

According to one of them, the bell was named after Lord Benjamin Hall, a gentleman with a large build and a very sonorous voice. He supposedly spoke at a special meeting of Parliament on the question of this very name. But he spoke for a very long time and bored his colleagues. One of the parliamentarians could not stand it and shouted from his seat: “Let’s call the bell Big Ben and get this hopeless business over with”. Big Ben” means “Big Ben”. The participants in the meeting appreciated the joke, and there was laughter in the hall, which could not mean anything but general agreement.

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Another version attributes the name of the bell to the then famous heavyweight boxer Benjamin Count. Rumor has it that they even wanted to name the “voice” bell after Queen Victoria, a suggestion allegedly made by a member of the upper House of Lords. There was no official confirmation of this in the parliamentary records. And even if we assume that such an initiative did take place, for some reason it was not destined to come to fruition.

Big Ben in the sunset

Interesting facts

The British parliamentarians, who decided to build the tower in 1844, insisted that the clock installed on it should by all means be the most accurate in the world. Only then would they agree to provide the necessary funding. From this it can be deduced that if the planners could not convince them that this would be the case, the construction of Big Ben might not begin.

Big Ben as Prison, caricature

Big Ben was also used as… a prison. Parliamentarians too rowdy at meetings were imprisoned there. Its last prisoner was the representative of the feminist movement Emmeline Pankhurst, who fought for equal rights for women. There is a monument to her outside the Palace of Westminster.

One day in 1949, the clock of Big Ben suddenly lost four minutes, which was a real emergency. Everybody blamed the clock mechanism: it must be too old to stand the test of time. But it turned out that a flock of starlings decided to settle right on the minute hand.

The next time – it was the winter of 1962 – the watch was subjected to icing. Specialists concluded that they could be damaged by mechanical chunks of ice, so they decided not to take any chances. The caretakers were instructed to disconnect the pendulum from the clock mechanism so as not to have a major breakdown. With the onset of the thaw it was restarted.

However, Big Ben’s clock did break once. On 5 August 1976 it stopped and remained stopped for nine months. The reason was the fatigue of the metal of which the torsion suspension of the pendulum, which transmitted its weight, was made. This accident caused considerable damage to the movement. After the damage had been repaired, the watch was re-launched on 9 May 1977. It served as a lesson for the future: henceforth the maintenance of Big Ben is carried out regularly and with greater care. To this end the clock could be stopped for an hour or two. Moreover, such pauses are not recorded as stops. Minor breakdowns also occurred, but rarely.

The weather factor once more affected the operation of the clock on May 27, 2005. The sun was burning unbearably in London, and for this reason the mechanism stopped twice during the day. True, the direct link between the heat and the stopping of the Big Ben is not known for certain, but then there was no other explanation. In the same year of 2005, the mechanism was stopped for 33 hours – routine maintenance was conducted. This duration was a record of sorts. It was the first time in August 2007 that maintenance work was carried out without stopping the movement. It lasted for 6 weeks, during which the watchmakers replaced the bearings and the main bell fixing system. The watch hand kept running with the help of specially connected electric motors.

On 30 January 1965 Britain and the whole world said goodbye to the most famous prime minister in the history of the country Sir Winston Churchill. On that day, the bells of Big Ben did not strike the time. The next time the clocks were silent was on April 30, 1997, the day before the elections to the House of Commons of the British Parliament. And finally, the last time the tower clock stopped was on April 17, 2013, when Baroness Margaret Thatcher was buried. She was the first female head of government of the United Kingdom. She was nicknamed the “Iron Lady” for her determination in carrying out unpopular reforms during her lifetime.

Red telephone box with Big Ben as a backdrop

The gilded inscription on each face reads in Latin: “Domine Salvam fac Reginam nostram Victoriam Primam”. The phrase translates as “God save our Queen Victoria the First.” There is another inscription – all around the perimeter of the tower, to the right and left of the clock – and it too is in Latin: “Laus Deo” (“Glory to God” or, alternatively, “Praise the Lord”).

When the British Parliament – incidentally, one of the oldest in the world – meets in the evening in the Palace of Westminster, the lights are always switched on at the top of the tower. Not everyone knows why. Is it a tradition or a symbol of something? More likely, the former. Victoria invented it as a way of seeing with her own eyes whether parliamentarians are really at work or just imitating it. Electric lamps have been lighting the clocks since 1912. Before that, the source of light was gas horns, which were tubes with a regulated gas supply, and equipped with a mechanism for increasing the air flow to the burner.

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Even though Big Ben’s clock has lost its world lead to the Allen-Bradley chronometer in the United States, as has already been said, it is still the largest four-sided clock with a chime, because the Americans either forgot or did not want to add a chime to their chimes.

Big Ben: Today

Many foreign tourists dream of seeing the inside of the Elizabeth Tower, but the authorities have decided not to offer tours. Permanent access to Big Ben is allowed only to a select circle of dignitaries. They go up a narrow 334-step spiral staircase. Since there is no elevator in the tower, such an ascent becomes akin to a feat.

Stairs to the top of Big Ben

Why is there this ban? As the reason is called the risk of terrorist threat: after all, the landmark is part of the architectural complex of the current parliament building – the highest representative and legislative body of the country. Meanwhile, excursions to Big Ben are held from time to time for British citizens. Only as an organizer must be none other than a member of the House of Lords or a member of the House of Commons.

The rest of us have to be content with only the appearance of the famous structure, being photographed against its backdrop. Travelling around London, you are likely to come across a lot of scaled-down copies of Big Ben. The duplicates are something between a tower and a floor clock in the homes of the British. “Clones” began to be installed almost at all city crossroads.

Did you know that Big Ben is gradually tilting? Of course, it’s not as good as the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy, but it’s a fact. Since its construction, the state of the ground has changed and that has caused Big Ben’s “fall”. The role of a catalyst was also played by the laying of the subway line of the London Underground “Jubilee”. But builders have calmed down: they foresaw it and therefore nothing terrible happened.

Souvenirs in the form of Big Ben.

Today the Elizabeth Tower has shifted by about 220 mm, which in relation to its height gives a slope of 1/250 toward the north-west. This is also affected by the external environment, with fluctuations of a few millimeters in one direction and a few millimeters in the other, depending on the weather conditions.

No matter what, Big Ben is and remains an important symbol for Britain – like the Kremlin in Moscow for Russia, the Eiffel Tower for Paris or the Statue of Liberty for the United States. On the night of December 31 to January 1 Londoners listen to the chimes of the New Year’s Eve to raise their glasses in time.

The image of the tower has long been a brand in its own right and is widely used in culture and art. Familiar outlines can be found in movies, TV shows, comic books, computer games, as well as on envelopes, postcards and various souvenir products.

How to get there

In close proximity to Big Ben is a subway station Westminster, which is served by trains of three different lines: Circle line (yellow), District line (green) and Jubilee line (gray). Moreover, in the area of Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster there is a huge number of bus routes, including night buses (before the route number stands the letter “N”).

Big Ben

Big Ben

Big Ben is a 96-meter clock tower located at the northeastern end of the British Parliament in Westminster. The landmark is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although the actual name of the tower is the Clock Tower, it is often called Big Ben, Big Tom or Big Ben Tower. The Clock Tower is one of the most recognizable structures in London and is its calling card, just like the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Since its creation, in 1859, the tower has served as London’s most reliable clockwork, and it has also been involved in the celebration of every national event. The whole city converges on the tower to celebrate the New Year, and all radio and television stations synchronize their time with Big Ben. Similarly, every year on Memorial Day of the victims of the First and Second World Wars at exactly eleven o’clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month as a sign of peace. The bell can be heard up to 12 kilometers away.

Big Ben is often mistakenly called the tower itself. In fact, it is the nickname of the bell, and the tower itself is officially called “Elizabeth Tower. It was renamed in honor of Her Majesty Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in. 2012. The clock tower is also erroneously referred to as St. Stephen’s Tower. However, the latter is actually a small tower in the courtyard of the Palace complex, which serves as the main entry point for debaters in the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Even during the reconstruction period, many tourists were not at all deterred by the fact that Big Ben is covered with scaffolding and does not look very aesthetically pleasing.

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Big Ben

Height: 96 meters;

Area: 12 square meters;

Number of steps: 334;

Number of used stone: 850 cubic meters;

Number of bricks used: 2,600 cubic meters;

Number of stories: 11;

The tower is tilted to the northwest by 8.66 inches.

Elizabeth Tower.

The British have always been famous for their ability to do things in an original way unlike other countries, as evidenced by left-hand traffic, monarchical traditions preserved through the centuries, and more. This peculiarity was not spared Big Ben. Elizabeth Tower was erected in a special way – from the inside out, that is, the scaffolding was installed inside the structure, rather than outside as it is customary to do in the rest of the world. Materials were transported by river and delivered to the masons by means of winches. The materials for the Elizabethan tower came from all over the United Kingdom: cast iron channels came from the ironworks on the Regent’s Canal, stone was brought in from Yorkshire for the outer parts of the walls, granite from the county of Cornwall, metal sheets for the roof from the foundry in Birmingham.

The foundation was laid on September 28, 1843. The foundation pit was dug to a depth of 3 meters. The entire United Kingdom had a hand in the creation of the famous landmark, but it was never celebrated. The official opening ceremony of Big Ben did not take place possibly because its commissioning was 5 years late, in 1859. The tower was designed by Charles Berry, chief architect at the royal court.

Big Ben

A contest was organized to find a first-rate watchmaker, the main requirement of which was to design a clockwork mechanism accurate to one second from the beginning of each hour and to telegraph the exact time to the Greenwich Observatory twice a day. The architect Berry was an excellent specialist in his field, but he was not a watchmaker. Such exorbitant demands for those times led to a seven-year delay in the deadline. The honour of designing London’s main clock fell not to the watchmaker, but to the lawyer Edmund Beckett Denison. The next delay was caused by the fact that the space inside the tower was too small for the planned design of the clock. It had been planned that it would cost £100 to rebuild the tower, but in fact the sum was much more – £2,500, unthinkable money at the time. It is interesting to note that if Big Ben were built today, it would cost about $200,000. Denison made a great contribution to the concept of accuracy: he developed a special mechanism that allowed the pendulum to resist external influences, such as the force of the wind. Denison’s invention has since been used in clocks around the world.

The clock was installed in the tower in April 1859. At first they didn’t work because the cast-iron minute hands were too heavy. Once they were replaced by lighter brass hands, the mechanism successfully began to show the time on May 31, 1859, shortly before the Big Ben bell was installed. Each dial is made of cast iron, is 7 meters in diameter, and contains 312 individual pieces of opalescent glass with an opaque finish. Under each dial is a Latin inscription carved into the stone: “Domine Salvam fac Reginam nostrum Victoriam primam,” which means “God save our Queen Victoria I.” Every five years the dials of Big Ben are washed by professional window cleaners who descend down on cables and wash the stained glass dials with a special detergent solution, taking care not to put their hands on them and not to damage the historic relic. Each year the clock is corrected with a coin. If the clock runs fast, a penny is added to the pendulum. If the clock is slow, a penny is removed from the pendulum. The clock gets two and a half seconds from each penny added. The clock was four and a half minutes behind in August 1949 when a flock of starlings sat on the minute hand.

Big Ben

Facts about clocks.

  • Number of dials: 4;
  • Diameter of the hour discs: 7 meters;
  • Size of numerals: 60 centimeters;
  • Dial material: cast iron;
  • Stained glass: 312 opal glass elements;
  • Illumination of each dial: 28 energy-efficient lamps of 85 watts each;
  • Service life of each energy-efficient lamp: 60,000 hours.
  • Material: copper;
  • Weight: 100 kilograms including counterweights;
  • Length: 4.2 meters;
  • Distance travelled by minute hands per year: Equivalent to 190 kilometers.
  • Weight: 300 kilograms including counterweights;
  • Length: 2.7 meters;
  • The hour numeral 4 is indicated by the Roman numeral IV, not IIII as on other clocks around the world.

Big Ben

The Great Bell

Officially, the Elizabeth Tower bell is called the Great Bell, although it is known worldwide as Big Ben. There are two theories as to its origin: it is named after Sir Benjamin Hall, the first member of the Parliamentary Commission (1855-1858), or it is named after Ben Count, the heavyweight boxing champion of the 1850s, also known as “Big Ben.” This nickname was usually given to society for anything that was the heaviest in its class. The first theory is believed to be the most likely. In August 1856 the bell was delivered by rail and sea to London. Upon its arrival in the port of London it was transferred to a passenger carriage and pulled across Westminster Bridge on 16 white horses. The bell was first installed in the New Palace Yard and tested every day until October 17, 1857, when it developed a 1.2-meter crack.

The second bell saw the light of day on April 10, 1858. It was 2.5 tons lighter than the first. It was installed on July 11, 1859, but its success was short-lived as well. In September 1859 the new bell also cracked, and Big Ben was silent for four years. In 1863 a solution was found by Sir George Airy, the Royal Astronomer. Big Ben was turned a quarter turn so that the hour hammer struck in a different place and replaced with a lighter hammer. Ever since, Big Ben has been in almost constant working order. Interestingly, the four small bells that ring every 15 minutes are nameless.

Facts about the Great Bell

  • Weight: 13.7 tons;
  • Height: 2.2 meters;
  • Diameter: 2.7 meters;
  • Musical note when struck: E;
  • Weight of the hammer: 200 kilograms.

Big Ben

Stopping the clock

The 2007 stop was the longest suspension since 1990. The clock movement was also suspended for two days in October 2005 to have the brake shaft inspected. Previous stops of the clock movement occurred in 1934 for 2 months and in 1956 for 6 months. Over the years, the clocks have been stopped completely by accident – by weather, workers, breakdowns or birds. The most serious failure occurred on the night of August 10, 1976, when part of the chiming mechanism fell off due to old metal. This caused great damage, but fortunately no one was injured.

Reconstruction of Big Ben

The major preservation program for the Elizabeth Tower, the Great Clock and the Great Bell, also known as Big Ben, began in early 2017 and lasted five years. Although workers removed the scaffolding back in late 2021, the renovation is not scheduled to be fully completed until October 2022. Now the renovation is in its final stages, the bell mechanism is being tested, power will be connected and new energy-saving lighting. The total cost of the project is estimated at £ 80 million, not £ 29 million as announced in the spring of 2016. Big Ben, which is visited by about 12,000 people each year, is carefully cared for by Parliament’s Heritage team.

Big Ben

Big Ben sightseeing tours

All tours of Big Ben have been suspended due to restoration work. During the renovations, a series of free Thursday morning talks are held. An hour-long presentation by Big Ben custodians covers the history and workings of the famous clock and iconic tower, followed by a short question and answer session. British residents and international visitors can book tickets for a number of other tours of Parliament, which take place on Saturdays throughout the year and on weekdays during Parliamentary vacations. The tours are scheduled to resume as they were in the spring of 2023.

Tickets can be purchased online, by phone, or on the day of your visit at the ticket booth at the entrance.

Hotels and hotels

There are plenty of hotels and small hostels close to the Elizabeth Tower in price ranges to suit all budgets. The tower is located in the heart of the city side by side with other world-class attractions in the Westminster area and it is easy to find lodging.

Big Ben

How to get to Big Ben

Right next to the Palace of Westminster is the Westminster subway station. At this station the yellow Circle line, the green District line and the grey Jubilee line intersect.

You can take ferry number RB1, RB1X to Westminster Pier ferry station. The ferry runs along the Thames, which means you can see all the sights from on board.

The closest bus stop to Big Ben is Westminster. It is reached by buses number 12, 53, 159, 453, N109, N155, N381. A little further is the stop “Westminster Station Bridge St.” with Routes 148 and 211. You can take the bus, No. RT1, to the Westminster Pier stop. This bus route is particularly interesting as it skirts the Thames on the way and offers a scenic view.

Big Ben is located in London’s oldest district. The concentration of attractions in the historic quarter is so high that sometimes it is impossible to catch a glimpse of how many cultural sites at once. Along with Big Ben one can not miss visiting the Palace of Westminster. It is there that the House of Lords and the House of Commons still debate from centuries ago. Directly opposite the tower stands Westminster Abbey, one of the world’s most important religious sites, where services have been held since 1090. On the opposite side you can walk through London’s oldest royal St. James’s Park, where one landmark flows seamlessly into the other.

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