The History behind New York City's New Year's Eve ball drop

It's ok, I giggled at "time balls" as well but that's their name so let all the laughter out before continuing as I'm going to say time balls a lot.

The end of the year is just  two days away and soon the entire world will be drunkenly crowded around televisions, all waiting to countdown from 10 and all pretending to know the words to Auld Lang Syne. In New York City at least one million people are expected to crowd into Times Square to witness the dropping of the famous ball that for over one hundred years has marked the passing from the old year to the new. However I doubt that many of the million beneath it will know that there was a time when time balls were considered crucial to the safety of naval vessels everywhere. 


Before the invention of John Harrison's Marine Chronometers there was no reliable method of measuring longitude. For every fifteen degrees east or west that was travelled away from your starting location there is an hours time difference; a portable, reliable and accurate timepiece to measure it had not been invented yet so tracking this time over long sea voyages was nigh on impossible. Harrison created the world's first Marine Chronometer in 1730 which when placed onboard a ship and set to the correct time allowed a navigator to know the ship's current location. By knowing the duration of the journey, where you started and the present time of that location it was simply a task of mathematics to know your current location. Once you were bobbing in the harbor however, it was impossible to know whether your chronometer was set to the correct time. A difference of a minute or two could lead your ship off hundreds of miles off course from your intended destination further in the voyage.

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In 1818 a Royal Navy Captain, Robert Wauchope, wrote a paper to the Admiralty proposing a "Plan for ascertaining the rates of chronometers by an instantaneous signal". Like all good ideas Wauchope's idea was remarkably simple. By erecting a flagpole in port and having a large ball drop at a predetermined time it meant that any ship in the harbour could sync their on-board chronometers to the correct time and ensure accurate navigation. Despite the simple proposition the British Admiralty took over a decade to put Wauchope's plans into action and eventually in 1829 the first time ball was erected in Portsmouth, England, where the Naval College was located. Four years later England's Astronomer Royal, John Pond, built a time ball atop Flamsteed House at Greenwich Observatory which remains there to this day. Whilst the Portsmouth time ball marked 12pm, the Greenwich ball marked 1pm as the astronomers were busy with observations in the midday sun and couldn't attend to the ball. For the last 182 years the ball has dropped every day in the same manner; at 12:55 it raises itself halfway up the 15ft mast then at 12:58 it reaches the top. At precisely 1pm the ball starts moving downwards with the start of it's movement marking the time rather than the end of travel. 

For those unaware with the geography of Greater London, Greenwich Observatory is located south of the River Thames sitting atop a hill in Greenwich Park. In 1833 the Thames still had a constant flow of traders, barges and ships travelling along it and all of these ships would have benefited from the time ball for any voyages East along the river to open waters. I am sure that Mr Pond made the decision to erect the time ball solely for scientific purposes and not for getting in favor with wealthy tradesman. Just twelve years later, the first American time ball was erected in Washington DC atop the US Naval Observatory after Captain Wauchope had impressed the American Ambassador during a visit to London. America's relationship with time ball had only just begun. 

The time ball at Royal Observatory Greenwich with a view of the City and the River Thames. 

The time ball at Royal Observatory Greenwich with a view of the City and the River Thames. 

1904 was a big year for the owner of The New York Times Adolph Ochs as the newspaper had just moved into their new headquarters in what is now known as Times Square just in time for the celebration of the New Year. Back then Times Square was known as Long Acre Square but was changed in April 1905 after Mr. August Belmont, the owner of Interborough Rapid Transit Company, had suggested the change in honor of the famous newspaper. As a joint celebration of their new HQ and the recently completed subway line, Ochs arranged a true New York celebration and arranged for a huge fireworks display on New Year's Eve at his new office. This was the first time a celebration had been arranged on the corner of Broadway, Seventh Avenue and West 42nd Street as traditionally the Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan was the popular venue of choice. The over 200,000 people who came to Long Acre Square saw "From the four corners of the skyscraper lamnent flames played. From base to dome the giant structure was alight - a torch to usher in the newborn, a funeral pyre for the old which pierced the very heavens" (As reported by the completely unbiased New York Times)

A few minute before 12 o’clock a dynamite bomb was fired from the tower. It was a warning that the old year was poised on the brink. Another bomb and another, and the fixed pieces figuring the new year were touched off. First they showed white against the sky. The color changed and they burned red. From every floor of the tower vari-colored lights were burned. It seemed almost as if the building were aflame
— New York Times, 1905
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This pyrotechnic display would continue until 1907 when the city of New York banned fireworks displays. Not to be deterred, Ochs commissioned Artkraft Signs, who were responsible for a multitude of signs in Times Square, to create an illuminated time ball that would be dropped to mark the year. Made by immigrant metalworker Jacob Starr, the 5 ft ball was covered in 100 incandescent lights and was constructed out of iron and wood so weighed over 700lbs. With the exception of 1942 and 1943 due to wartime blackout rules, the ball would drop every New Year's eve atop the New York Times building for the next one hundred years, even after The Times moved offices. The ball itself would change numerous times over the coming century with the most iconic change happening in 1981 where is was converted into a glowing green apple to celebrate the I HEART NY campaign.

There is no doubt that Adolph Ochs would be impressed at the modern displays if celebration. No longer a small iron and wood ball, the current time ball measures 12 ft, weigh over 11,875lbs. and is covered in 2688 triangular crystals and thousands of LEDs. The ball now starts it's 141 ft descent exactly at 11:59 marking the beginning the New Year at the end of it's travel. However whilst iconic in all it's luminous glory, the New York City time ball isn't a very good time ball as perceiving an object's end of travel is far harder for the human eye to perceive than it's start. This is why functional time balls mark time with the beginning of their descent. I can imagine that before a countdown timer was added that the entirety of Times Square was filled with New Yorkers, each defiantly shouting their own perceived correct countdown over everyone else's incorrect one. 

The New York City time ball drop has become so ubiquitous with the celebration of the new year that millions of people tune into see it and now countries around the world have adopted their own version. It might not be the most accurate timepiece but at 12ft and 12,000lbs it's a great reminder of a horological invention that shaped the world as we know it today. Now if you will excuse me, I need to go learn all twelve verses to a two hundred year old Scottish poem.