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A Brief History of the Ball Drop

by J.Edwards

Each year, on New Year’s Eve, up to one million people squeeze into Times Square in the heart of Manhatten to celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of another. The hallmark of this gathering is the famous Times Square Ball Drop. Every year at one minute to midnight on New Year’s Eve, a massive time ball, made by Waterford Crystal, descends 77 feet to the rooftop of the One Times Square Building. Touching down at the very last second of the year.

The Times Square Ball Drop celebration dates back to 1907, when Walter F. Palmer, the chief electrician for The Times newspaper, was asked by news magnate, Adolph Ochs, to create a dazzling midnight spectacle of light that would draw attention to the Square and bring publicity to the newspaper. Weighing in at 700 pounds, the first Times Square Ball was constructed of iron and wood, and was adorned with 100 illuminated 25-watt lightbulbs – a true marvel in the just then dawning age of electricity.

Although it’s arguably the most famous of ball drops, the concept of dropping a ball from a pinnacle point in the city to mark a precise point in time isn’t a Times Square first. The practice dates back almost 100 years earlier than the first Times Square ball drop. Initially conceived by Robert Wauchope, of England, time balls were used to synchronize the deck watches and ship chronometers of Navy vessels, who depended on accurate timekeepers to help them navigate longitudinally. In major port towns, a time ball was mounted atop the roof of a building that could easily be seen from the harbor front and every day at a precise time – nearly always 1:00PM – the ball would drop. Ships that were in port, or not far off the shoreline, would turn their attention towards the time ball, near the hour, and set their watches to the exact time when the ball was dropped.

greenwich-timeball

The image above was taken on a trip to Greenwich several years ago and shows the time ball above Greenwich Observatory, which still drops everyday at 1:00PM. For more on the critical importance of accurate timekeepers and time balls in the saving of countless lives through conquering the longitude problem, I recommend reading Longitude, by Dava Sobel.

While Times Square was named so for the newspaper that once dominated it and not for any horological merit, it seems befitting that such a deeply time-centric tradition should mark the square’s most celebrated event of the year.

One Comment

  1. Posted January 3, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Ahh, now that you mention this, Greenwich was probably one of my fondest memories of London, Uk. The observatory has a fabulous new exhibit- (from 2007 onwards) on Longitude, and the role Arnold played in the history of this fabulous aspect of marine shipping.
    Needless to add, this was the subject of my many visits to the observatory and the gardens which house the Royal Observatory.
    An incurable Horologist at heart, I see the same relationship with truth, and the desire to learn more, and indeed I have today with your lovely post Jon! Learnt more, and full respect to the blog, and the spirit of watchmaking. Same to you as well Jp.
    Cheers from Canada!
    Prem C.

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