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

By | December 19, 2019

Time balls were initially for nautical use

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: 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.

People loved watching time balls

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Source: Museum Of Applied Arts and Sciences

Things on dry land were a little different. Before clocks and watches became affordable for regular Joes, people relied on a variety of means for telling time. The sundials that were used in most towns and church bells that rang every hour were good enough for citizens who spent all day performing a single task, but when sailors started using time balls, they became a major spectacle. People gathered around the time ball as early as 15 minutes before its drop just to watch it happen. To get even more of a thrill out of the ball drop, some of them brought time keepers to check the ball's accuracy.