Tonight a million people will squeeze themselves into Times Square and beyond to celebrate the arrival of the New Year. The focus of their merriment will be an 11,785 pound ball of iron sheathed in Waterford Crystal mounted on a pole at the top of the building at 1 Times Square. A million voices in unison will count down the seconds before midnight as the ball descends the pole and a billion people around the globe watch on television. I don’t like crowds, or standing around in the cold, so I won’t be there, although a nice thing about living in New York is knowing that you could be there if you wanted to.
It has always seemed to me to be a curious custom. I wondered how it ever got started, so I looked it up:
Once upon a time, time balls were prosaic navigational tools: wooden balls mounted on poles sitting atop a high point observable by ship captains peering through their telescopes.
Their purpose—to notify seamen of the exact time so that they could set their chronometers. The first time balls were located on top of observatories where exact time was determined by celestial observation.
Here’s how it worked: A few minutes before one o’clock in the afternoon (12 noon in the United States), the ball was raised halfway up the pole. Then two or three minutes later the ball was raised all the way to the top. On the exact hour, the ball started its descent. The beginning of the drop signaled that it was now 1 p.m. (or noon). After the invention of the telegraph, a time signal could be sent to points distant and time balls were installed on the highest building in many cities and towns to enable people to set their watches. After the introduction of the radio, of course, time balls were no longer necessary.
So How Did a Time Ball Get to Times Square?
In 1904, Adolph Ochs , publisher of The New York Times, bought the building at what is now 1 Times Square. (At the time it was called Longacre Square, but Ochs convinced the City to rename it.) And to celebrate the New Year, he decided to have a fireworks display launched from the top of the building. That went on for three years, and a good time was had by all, but in 1907 the City banned the fireworks. Rather than give up the celebration, Ochs had the brilliant idea of installing a time ball that would designate exactly when the New Year arrived, and give revelers a reason to continue to celebrate in front of his building.
To maximize the merriment, the customary procedure of designating the time from the beginning of the descent was turned on its head. Now revelers began the countdown to midnight as the ball dropped. When it reached the bottom—the midnight hour had arrived and the New Year was born.
That first Times time ball was studded with 100 incandescent light bulbs. When the magic hour arrived, four electric signs—one on each side of the building—flashed “1908” in numerals six feet high. Since then, the ball has been modified many times. In 2000, to mark the millennnium, the Waterford Crystal ball was introduced. Today LED lighting technology makes possible a wide variety of spectacular effects.
Few time balls still exist; two of them are in the U.S.: one at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C and the other at the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse at the South Street Seaport in New York City.
The Greenwich observatory time ball in London and the one at the Naval Observatory are operational; they still drop at the designated hour every day. The Times Square ball, on the other hand, has never served as a daily indicator of the time. It drops only once a year.
Tonight’s the night!