It is estimated that a million people will gather in Times Square tonight for the annual dropping of the ball to ring in the new year, and certainly many more millions will watch this very familiar tradition on TV broadcasts. But why a crystal ball? Ever wonder where the notion of dropping a ball to count-down the turning of one year into the next derives from?
Before the 20th century, the traditional way that many New Yorkers celebrated New Year’s Eve was to gather around Trinity Church across from Wall Street in lower Manhattan to literally “ring in the New Year;” the earliest bell had been installed in the church as far back as 1698 (so before the first Trinity Church burned in the notorious fire of 1776) and in 1846, when the third version of Trinity was completed, a belfry featuring a whole octave of bells capable of playing tunes became a favorite spot for crowds to gather at midnight on December 31st; as the church bells pealed, revelers would supplement the noise by ringing their own hand bells or other noise-makers of various kinds.
It is always intriguing to look back at newspaper reports to get an impression of the Zeitgeist for a particular moment in time. In 1860, for example, after the contentious election of a new president and on the eve of the Civil War, the New York Herald described that year’s revelries as follows:
There were numerous watchers around and about the venerable walls of old Trinity at the mystic hour "when spirits are said to walk abroad," lingering there to hear the first thrilling peal of the clattering bells in their iron tongued farewell to the dying year. And presently it came. First, the three-quarter chime, giving the world to know that there remained but one-quarter of an hour ere the year 1860 would be drawn into the ever moving stream of ages. And then, as the cold gusts of midnight sighed through the leafless trees and over the graves of the forgotten dead, there floated from the high church tower the stirring music of eight bells chiming in changes and making the air redolent with harmony. This was followed by "Hail Columbia," "Yankee Doodle" and some sweet selections from "La Fille du Regiment."
In 1904, to celebrate the construction of the Herald’s rival newspaper The New York Times’ new headquarters at the intersection of 42nd and Broadway, One Times Square (indeed, the renaming of the area from Longacre Square to Times Square), the publisher of the paper (Adolph Ochs) organized a public New Year’s Eve celebration – but in that and the next year celebrated not with the dropping of a ball but rather with fireworks. Crowds would enjoy the spectacle until afterwards the soot and ashes fell on them and the embers of the fireworks posed a fire hazard to many of the (still back then) wooden-framed buildings surrounding the square.
And so within two years, the city banned fireworks and Ochs needed to come up with an alternative spectacle that could capture the attention of the ever-jaded New York man and woman on the street. Taking his inspiration from the “time ball” atop the now-gone Western Union Building that was located on Broadway and Dey Street, he decided to re-purpose the ball as a count-down device to ring in the new year (the Western Union Building was designed in 1875 by George B. Post—the same architect who designed the New York Stock Exchange building—and was supposed to be fireproof but burned down in 1890 in the first fire to destroy a skyscraper; in its time, it was a beacon landmark for mariners in what was then the busiest port in the country and if you look closely at the drawings and few surviving photographs of the building, you can clearly make out a time ball as part of the flag pole on its beautiful mansard roof.)
Time balls were an important maritime invention introduced in the 19th century that allowed ships that traveled across different longitudes to more accurately calibrate their chronometers to a predetermined time (usually high noon) based on the coordinates of where the time ball was dropped. This was critical for navigating the open seas and determining the ship’s whereabouts. The first time balls were erected in England, at Portsmouth harbor in 1829 and then at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich in 1833; the first American time ball was erected at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. (you can still see it. In 1850, the new invention of the telegraph made coordinating the dropping of these time balls that much more uniform and so its significance to Western Union becomes apparent. Ochs observed that crowds would regularly gather to watch the dropping of the ball and coordinate their own time pieces to its drop, and so he simply changed high-noon to midnight for his own purpose of dropping One Times Square’s time ball.
The original 1907 time ball was constructed by immigrant businessman Jacob Starr and was made of iron and wood with one hundred 25-watt light bulbs studding the structure. Over the years, there would be seven different time balls constructed variously out of wood, iron, aluminum, and finally crystal glass and all would be illuminated in one way or another. There were two years (1942 and 1943) when the festivities would not use a time ball since the city was complying with a “dim-out” to prevent any Nazi submarines or aerial attacks from striking at the heart of the city; even so, revelers still gathered in Times Square to observe New Year’s Eve with a moment of silence followed by an uproar of noise that harkened back to the “ringing out the old and ringing in the new” tradition around Trinity Church.
In the 1980s, the Times Square time ball took up the Milton Glaser-inspired tourist campaign of “I LOVE NY” and became a “Big Apple Ball” with a noticeable stem and leaf. At the turn of the millennium in 2000, Waterford Crystal of Ireland and Philips Lighting totally redesigned the time ball with triangular crystal panels reflecting the light given off by 600 halogen lightbulbs and 96 strobe lights. Finally, in 2007, the centennial year for the dropping of the ball, the two companies again redesigned the ball with an icosahedral geodesic design illuminated by LEDs and computerized lighting. This is the ball we see today and beginning that year, the ball has stayed on more-or-less permanent display throughout the year and is continuously rearranging itself in colorful patterns for tourists to enjoy year-round.
Times Square Time Ball, through the ages
As we say good-bye to 2016, I cannot help but acknowledge the various losses that have made this a particularly tough year for many of us; we lost many pop cultural figures who profoundly shaped my generation such as David Bowie, Prince, and Carrie Fisher. For many of us, there was a momentous political loss that will continue to reverberate in the coming year and, indeed, for perhaps the rest of our lives. In NYC, we have lost such beloved institutions as Ziegfeld Theater, Bleeker Street Records, St. Mark’s Bookshop, and Carnegie Deli. Having acknowledged those losses, part of the joy of wandering the streets of NYC is to realize that change is inevitable and unpredictable; on New Year’s Eve, we may be particularly attuned to the “ever moving stream of ages.” I sincerely hope that stream carries you and yours to a place of peace and well-being in the coming year; and if it happens to carry you into NYC, please do consider wandering the streets of NYC with me and we can evoke the ghosts of NYC’s past and enjoy its present splendor and bustle! Happy New Year, one and all!