Why Does The Times Square Ball Drop On New Year's Eve?

By | December 19, 2019

Time balls were phased out in the early 20th century

Americans have a lot of different ways of celebrating the new year. In some regions, people eat black eyed peas for good luck; those of us lucky enough to have a partner might get a kiss at midnight; and a full 100 million of us turn on the tube to watch the Times Square ball drop. When that famous orb completes its descent at midnight on New Year's Day, it signals the first moments of 365 days that we hope will be better than the last. But why? What does dropping a ball have to do with the new year?

Contrary to what you might think, using a falling sphere to demarcate time isn't just some arbitrary quirk of Dick Clark, that ageless sage of the new year. It's a tradition that harkens back to the sailing industry of the 19th century. The ball that drops every New Year's Eve in Times Square may be the most well-known time ball, but it's hardly the first. It's not even the only time ball in the Big Apple.

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Source: The New Yorker

By the early 1900s, time was up for time balls. Clocks, watches, and time pieces of all sizes were a normal part of life, and watching a ball drop at specific time seemed quaint and outdated by comparison. However, a 1907 fireworks ban had the public crawling back to time balls for the annual New Year's Eve celebration held by The New York TimesAdolph Ochs, the owner of the Times, commissioned an illuminated, 700-lb. ball made of iron and wood to be lowered from the flagpole of the Times Tower at the start of the new year. Following the first ball drop, the paper reported:

The great shout that went up drowned out the whistles for a minute. The vocal power of the welcomers rose above even the horns and the cow bells and the rattles. Above all else came the wild human hullabaloo of noise.

Time balls were initially for nautical use

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Source: Royal Museum Greenwich

England's Portsmouth harbor is the birthplace of the time ball. In 1829, mariners who wanted to synch their chronometers used landmarks to estimate time, but on a foggy day or dark night, that wasn't always possible. To solve this problem, they started hoisting a large ball that could be seen by every ship in anchor at the harbor up a 15-ft. mast and then dropping it. The ball dropped daily at 1:00 P.M.