Since 1907, New York City has been celebrating New Year’s Eve by dropping a giant ball in Times Square. Aside from being seen in-person by countless wide-eyed New Yorkers, millions across the world tune in to their TVs each year to watch the ball being dropped.
The New Year’s Eve ball drop is cemented so firmly in the history of the city and the country as a whole, it’s accepted simply as tradition, but not many are familiar with its symbolic origins. Why do we drop the ball on New Year’s Eve? As it turns out, the ball has a rich, practical history, and its original meaning is, in some ways, still exemplified today.
Origin of the Time Ball
The New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square is the most iconic time ball used today, and it’s meant as a celebratory symbol. Originally though, time balls were used out of necessity.
The idea for the device was first conceived in 1818 by British Royal Navy captain Robert Wauchope as a “Plan for Ascertaining the Rates of Chronometers by an Instantaneous Signal”. In other words, Wauchope planned to slide a ball along a mast on top of an observatory. The ball was meant to be lowered every day at noon to help naval officers synchronize their chronometers without having to leave their ships. Since the chronometer was essential in tracking longitude, it always needed to be properly calibrated.
Wauchope’s plan was officially put into action in Portsmouth, England, 1829, with the first time ball being erected at the city’s Naval Academy. The device was big enough to be visible from the harbor or port. At the time, this proved to be essential technology.
Britain was the world’s main maritime power, and was uniquely responsible for tracking time accurately. Before the time ball, the country’s naval officers required landmarks to gauge longitude and a stable surface to rest a pendulum on. Without these, having a proper measure of time was almost impossible. With the time ball making its descent every day like clockwork, all it took was a quick look toward the Naval Academy at noon for captains to accurately set their chronometers. Thanks to its success, a second ball was installed atop the Greenwich Observatory in 1833, and subsequent devices appeared in Liverpool and Edinburgh in 1836. As word of the time ball’s utility spread, an increasing number were erected across Europe. The first time ball in America was placed in New York at the Western Union Building.
New Year’s Eve in New York
With the introduction of radio and other modern methods of tracking and broadcasting time, the time ball became obsolete by the start of the 20th century. However, at this point, the descent of the ball was already established as a visual spectacle. Alfred Ochs, then owner of The New York Times, would be the one to manifest this fascination with the time ball into the tradition we continue to follow today.
In 1904, Ochs moved the The New York Times to a skyscraper on 42nd Street at Longacre Square, which would eventually become known as Times Square. That same year, Ochs decided to throw the New Year’s Eve party of the century for everyone in the city – an all-day street festival culminating in a brilliant midnight firework show. This was the first time New York City welcomed in the New Year with such style, though the city itself quickly dampened the festivities, implementing a fireworks ban in 1907 because of the number of new buildings that had gone up in Times Square.
But That Didn’t Stop Ochs
Being a man of ideas, Ochs wouldn’t let the ban put a halt to the fun. Inspired by the Western Union time ball, he had a version of the device installed in Times Square in time for the 1907 New Year’s Eve celebration, and the ball has been dropped every year since then.
This first time ball was a technological marvel at the time; 700 pounds, 6 feet in diameter, built of iron and wood, and containing 100 lightbulbs. We can contrast the original time ball with our current one, introduced in 2008; 11,875 pounds, 12 feet in diameter, containing 2,688 Waterford crystals and 32,256 LED lights – the largest crystal ball in the world.
So, Why Do We Drop the Ball on New Year’s?
Today, despite iPhones, the internet, and even wristwatches, the Times Square ball continues to serve its original purpose: to track the passage of time and bring us into the New Year. Its practical necessity is long gone, but we still drop the ball on New Year’s Eve every year, like clockwork – because it’s tradition, it’s fun, and it’s really easy on the eyes.
Don’t drop the ball this New Year’s Eve; make sure to earn this nifty holiday badge – Auld Lang Syne
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.