As the end of the year approaches, we are all busy preparing for parties and New Year’s resolutions. At 11:59, we’ll look to Times Square (or watch it on TV) and anxiously watch as the ball begins to drop. But what are we really watching? What started out in 1907 as an advertising ploy has become a national tradition.
The Times Square Ball was erected in December of 1907 to advertise for The New York Times. It has been dropped every year since except for 2 years during WWII due to mandated blackouts. The ball has been remade 6 times since the first dropping.
While dropping a ball seems like a bizarre custom to us today, it seemed obvious to the creators in the 1900s who were familiar with real time balls (also known as signal balls.) Time balls, wooden balls held on poles above tall buildings near bodies of water, had been used since 1829 to help seamen calibrate their marine chronometers and watches. Marine chronometers of the time were imperfect and needed to be reset each time in port to keep navigation calculations correct.
A popular time ball, erected at Greenwich Conservatory in 1833, dropped daily at 1 pm to a sea of waiting ships. It became the standard for time. Time balls in the United States dropped at 12 PM. 5 minutes before the hour; the balls were raised half way to signal the hour was approaching. When the hour struck, the ball was released. Many seamen would stare at the balls, waiting for the drop, like we do today counting down to the new year.
Happy New Year! I hope everyone has a fun and safe celebration tonight.