The Times Square Ball Drop

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugTimes Square’s New Year’s Eve Ball, 1978. From The New York Times.

Tonight, all eyes will be on Times Square as the famous New Year’s Eve ball makes its drop at the stroke of midnight to welcome 2015! Although most New Yorkers avoid Times Square at all costs on New Year’s Eve (last year I had to have a police escort to my 45th Street office), we all appreciate the tradition of the ball drop and the special place that it has made New York during this time of year. The Times Square ball drop is a quintessential New York tradition – and it’s over a century old! The first ball drop was held on December 31, 1907 to celebrate the beginning of 1908. With the exception of the wartime years of 1942 and 1943, the Times Square ball drop has been held annually since 1907.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugThe Times Building, 1905. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

The Times Square ball drop was first organized as an early publicity stunt for The New York Times newspaper. Adolph Ochs, owner of The New York Times, started with the idea of shooting off fireworks at midnight on New Year’s Eve, in part to promote the new One Times Square headquarters of the newspaper in 1903. The fireworks were a hit – close to 200,000 people attended the first all-day celebration and midnight fireworks display to welcome the 1904 new year. It was said that the cheers of the crowd in 1904 could be heard thirty miles north across the Hudson River.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugTimes Square on New Year’s Eve, 1937.

But by 1907, New York City banned the fireworks display. Ochs was unfazed by this legal hiccup – he was ready for something bigger than a fireworks display on New Year’s Eve. His electrician suggested an electrically-lit “time ball” which would descend slowly to mark the stoke of midnight. Ochs commissioned the sign-maker Artkraft Strauss to build a “time ball,” which would descend down a flagpole at the One Times Square building at midnight. The original ball was made of wood and iron, and lit by 100 incandescent 25-watt bulbs.

The idea of a ball drop to mark time was not Ochs’. Time balls have existed since the early-19th century as a time-signaling device, used primarily by ship’s navigators to set their chronometers. The first ball drop took place at England’s Royal Observatory in Greenwich, where a ball has been lowered daily at 1 pm since 1833.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugTimes Square on New Year’s Eve, 1937.

The original Times Square ball was used for twelve years, until it was replaced in 1920 with one made of wrought iron. In 1955, the Times Square ball was replaced again – this time with a 200-pound aluminum ball. This 1955 ball lasted a long time – it was basically unchanged until the 1980s, when it was replaced. From then on, the ball has been upgraded and replaced with some regularity as the New Year’s Eve celebration is such a television spectacle. As of this year, there have been a total of five balls since 1907, though the more recent balls have had many “versions.” The ball that drops tonight was introduced in 2008, though it will have new panels on it this year.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugNew Year’s Ball, 1994. Photo by John Simon/AP.

The Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration is about more than just the ball – but the glistening time ball has always been at the center of the action. The ball drop made Times Square the New Year’s Eve destination it is today, and contributed to the atmosphere of the Times Square area over the past century. The Times Square ball drop is a major broadcast event, seen by an estimated one billion people annually. One million spectators are expected to pack the streets of Times Square tonight to view the ball drop in person! Although I don’t have any desire to stand outside at Times Square in 20-degree temperatures, I love watching the ball drop on TV as I ring in the new year with friends and family. I hope your New Year’s Eve plans will take you some place where you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of this year’s fantastic Times Square ball drop!

Happy New Year,

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