It’s become traditional to drop some sort of ball to signal the entrance of the new year. Our tradition of the Times Square, New York ball drop goes back to the early 20th Century. But the basic idea is much older.
According to Alexis McCrossen, author of Marking Modern Times: A History of Clocks, Watches, and Other Timekeepers in American Life and professor of history at Southern Methodist University, the first “time balls” were located in England in Portsmouth’s harbor in 1829 and at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich in 1833. (The Greenwich ball still exists.) Ships needed to keep time accurately for navigation, so these balls were large and mounted high so ship captains in the harbor could see them and be able to set their clocks of that era (chronometers invented by John Harrison.)
Though they were designed for mariners, the time balls became popular for everyone. At around a quarter to noon, large crowds would go outside to get a glimpse of the timekeeper. “These balls, covered in black or red canvas, would be hoisted up to top and at the exact moment of noon, it would float down,” McCrossen says. By 1844, there were 11 of these devices worldwide.
In 1845, the U.S. Secretary of the Navy ordered a time ball built atop the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., but our version was somewhat less precise. After an oral signal, the ball would be thrown by hand, land on the Observatory’s dome and roll to the roof below. Between 1845 and around 1902, time balls were erected at locations like San Francisco’s Telegraph Hall, the Boston State House, and even interior towns like Crete, Neb. “The vast majority of clocks were put up by government entities to assert their right to control the time,” McCrossen argues.
But this method was prone to malfunction, so much so that newspapers carried notices that the drop was inaccurate. Eventually, the invention of the telegraph allowed for the transmission of time signals across the wires, which allowed the dropping of a time ball to be more precise. For example, the time ball built in 1877 on the rooftop of Western Union Telegraph’s New York City headquarters received a signal from the U.S. Naval Observatory. Still, by the late 19th century, the time ball was either being discontinued as impractical or considered symbolic.
Then when a 1907 fireworks ban forced the New York Times to find a new way to announce the new year, the paper’s owner Adolph Ochs, inspired by the Western Union Telegraph’s time ball, arranged for an illuminated seven-hundred-pound iron and wood ball to be lowered from the flagpole of the Times Tower.
“The great shout that went up drowned out the whistles for a minute,” the Times reported at the time. “The vocal power of the welcomers rose above even the horns and the cow bells and the rattles. Above all else came the wild human hullabaloo of noise.”
So tonight at midnight, just think of your favorite ship captain.
Adapted from “The Surprising Origins of the New Year’s Eve Ball Drop Tradition” by Olivia B. Waxman, Time.com ( http://time.com/4608451/new-years-eve-ball-drop-history/?xid=newsletter-brief )