A Crystal Ball of a Time: A History of New York City's Famous New Year's Eve Tradition
by Isabel Oberlender
Every year on New Year’s Eve, hundreds of thousands of people have notoriously gathered in New York City’s Times Square to watch a gargantuan ball adorned in crystal planes and multi colored, LED luminaries slide down a pole at the stroke of midnight. Up to a billion people catch the event over their television screens to ring in the New Year. The event is one of the Big Apple’s most iconic and the device itself is wondrously intricate: an aluminum skeleton clothed in thousands of lights, capable of producing an almost infinite amount of color patterns. Although this “time ball” carries an incredibly modern casing, the contraption originated in the nineteenth century.
In the early eighteen-hundreds, time zones had not yet been established and most American cities kept their own time based on the position of the sun in the sky. For navigators at sea, knowing the precise time was necessary in calculating an exact longitude. Due to the fact that there were no reliable time-indicating devices available, this practice for determining longitude was near impossible and created problems for even the most seasoned seafarers. In 1818, a Royal Navy Captain by the name of Robert Wauchope devised an incredible solution. He figured that if the coastal naval observatory used a visual signal that the captains could view from their ship decks, navigators would be able to keep time more easily.
The first ball-drop occurred in late 1829 in Portsmouth, England. Captain Wauchope’s apparatus used two balls hung on a flagpole at the shoreline to indicate when noon began. Although the details pertaining to how the device worked are slightly complicated, Wauchope’s design used a shift of light between the two weighted balls to depict the change in time. By 1845, there were more than a dozen time balls placed on international ports and public time signals were growing in popularity worldwide.
Despite the time ball’s early success, the technology was flawed and new time-telling inventions such as the self-winding watch eliminated the need for mariners to use time signals by the eighteen-eighties. However, inland uses for public time signals grew astronomically. Townspeople were able to set their watches to them and city businesses, banks, coach companies, clockmakers, and playhouses relied on having the exact time. The time ball itself was considered to be an appropriate accent on government buildings and was even proposed as a possible mount on top of the Washington Monument in 1884.
The debut of the time ball on New Year’s Eve in Times Square happened after a fiery incident at a party to celebrate the arrival of 1905. Times Square hadn’t even been named until Adolf Ochs built a new headquarters in 1904 for his incredibly well known newspaper, the New York Times, in the area on 42nd Street. The former “Longacre Square” was named “Times Square” that spring and Ochs decided he would celebrate with a grand party on the eve of 1905. Minutes before midnight on that New Year’s Eve, workers fired off a dynamite bomb and fireworks from the building’s top floors to proclaim the arrival of the new year. The celebratory explosions caused hot ash to rain down on the square and resulted in a ban on fireworks by the New York police department. This restriction caused Ochs to include the time ball in his future New Year’s Eve plans.
At the stroke of midnight on December 31st, 1906, the time ball made a much more grandiose entrance descending down a pole from the crown of a the New York Times Building. The 700-pound, 5-foot-wide sphere, covered in 100 light bulbs, delighted the crowd and initiated a tradition that continues to this day. Although the amount of physical onlookers has grown exponentially and the ball has undergone a series of remodels over the years, the excitement that erupts as the glittering, illuminated ball glides down the pole has remained.