An odd thing about American culture – everyone else around the world knows what they’re up to, including the strange tradition of dropping a ball at Times Square, New York, at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. Although called a ball drop, it is more appropriately described as a big geodesic metal/crystal sphere emitting a dizzying array of light as it slides down a metal pole over the course of a minute, followed by the dumping of one ton of confetti onto the streets of New York.
So why a ball drop to ring in the new year? The New Yorker has the story:
Time balls originated in the early eighteen-hundreds, before there were time zones. Most American cities kept their own time, based on the sun. Knowing the exact time at sea was exceptionally difficult but was crucial to navigators, who used it to calculate their precise longitude. To determine the time, seafarers relied on a marine chronometer, an apparatus that resembled an oversized pocket watch, carefully gimballed in a wooden box to keep it level as rough seas rose and fell.
Unfortunately, chronometers varied in their “going-rate”—the speed at which they ran. If the instrument wasn’t periodically “rated”—recalibrated—the vessel risked being wrecked by unexpected shoals. “The deadly serious task of rating chronometers,” as the historian Alexis McCrossen has called it, forced crews to lug the delicate devices ashore and pay agents to maintain them.
In 1818, Captain Robert Wauchope, of the Royal Navy, had a better idea. Why not use a visual signal from a coastal naval observatory, coördinated by telegraph, that captains could see from their decks? The first ball drop took place in late 1829, in a dockyard at Portsmouth, England. Wauchope’s design used two balls, both five feet in diameter, set on a flagpole at the water’s edge. One was fixed at the top; the second was weighted and mobile. Minutes before noon, the second ball was raised up the flagpole until it met the stationary ball, so that no light passed between them. A flag was flown nearby, to warn observers of the imminent drop, which Wauchope estimated took a little less than half a second. At the moment captains saw light between the balls, they checked their chronometers against the official time.
Not the most exact science (chronometers were usually below deck, where the ball wasn’t visible; time-ball operators complain about poor weather and poor visibility), but Wauchope found enough support to have time balls installed in Greenwich, Cape of Good Hope, Jakarta, and Madras, until better technologies (such as self-winding clocks) eliminated the need for recalibrating of chronometers.
But time balls found a welcome audience on land, even as they died at sea:
In cities, people set their personal clocks to them. So, too, did city businesses that relied on having the precise time, such as banks, coach companies, clockmakers, and playhouses. We know that Lincoln was shot at 10:13 P.M. because a stage carpenter had synchronized the Ford’s Theatre clock that morning: “I fixed the clock in the vestibule by the ball today and it is right by that,” he said. Government officials considered the time ball an appropriate accent on municipal buildings. In 1884, someone even proposed erecting a time ball on top of the Washington Monument.
In 1904, publisher of The Times, Adolph Ochs, convinced Mayor George McClellan to rename the square after the paper. Ochs also planned a New Year’s Eve party that year, promising fireworks at midnight. After the city banned fireworks displays in 1906, Ochs had the chief electrician for the paper, Walter Palmer, come up with another spectacle. Palmer decided to construct a 700-pound (about 320kg) metal sphere of iron and wood, and have it all lit up and lowered from the flagpole at midnight. And the ball drop has continued ever since…
May all your troubles during the coming year be as short as your New Year’s resolutions. Cheers.