The first "time balls" on record were built in England, and dropped at the same time each day to allow captains of nearby ships to synchronize their chronometers from a distance. The time ball at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, shown here, was built in 1833 and is still dropped daily. About 150 time balls are believed to have existed around the world, allowing for early synchronization of watches and naval instruments.
Publisher Adolph Ochs of the New York Times was responsible for turning this into an annual American tradition. He had been hosting a large gathering of revellers in Times Square to celebrate the new year since 1904, but was denied a fireworks permit for the 1907 festivities. Turning to maritime tradition, he commissioned a large wood and iron ball from a local signmaker, covered in 100 light bulbs. This signmaker, Artkraft Strauss, continued to be responsible for the annual ball-lowering until it was completely remade for the Millenium celebrations in 2000.
The ball has been redesigned and upgraded throughout the years to incorporate improvements in lighting technology. The 7th major redesign of the ball debuted for New Year’s 2008, with improvements that now allow it to be displayed all year round. Other changes over the years have added multi-colored LED lights, Waterford crystal panes, and computer controls for the 60-second lowering process, as well as upgrading the size from 1907’s original 5 foot diameter and 700 lbs to today’s massive 12 foot diameter, 11,875 lb sparkly wonder!
The ball-lowering was skipped in 1942 and 1943 due to wartime blackout restrictions in NYC. Revellers still gathered in Times Square to celebrate the turning of the calendar with a moment of silence, followed by the sound of ringing bells broadcast from sound trucks placed throughout the square - a nod to the pre-Times Square tradition of gathering at Trinity Church to "ring out the old, ring in the new."
The celebrations for 2021 looked a little different as well, due to COVID-19. There have been over 1 million attendees to this annual celebration in recent years, but this year a live audience of only around 100 people was planned. This group was mostly composed of first responders & NYC essential workers plus their families as a way to recognize their sacrifices and contributions in 2020, while many others joined in by watching from home.
Here’s wishing a Happy New Year to all of you, and hoping next year’s celebrations are even brighter!