Happy New Year 2016!!! Why We Watch the Ball Drop
Location: The roof of One Times Square, New York City, 40.756421 North, 73.98867 West
Happy New Year everyone! Today we will reflect on a curious tradition: the millions who brave crowds and winter winds or otherwise stay glued to their televisions to watch a ball drop down a pole in the middle of New York’s Times Square. This monumental event signals the entry of the new year. But why this particular American monument on New Year’s Eve? Why not a clock? Or a groundhog?
In the olden days, cities each kept their own time based on the movement of the sun. Although this system was less than completely accurate, it worked well enough. Things were decidedly more complicated for vessels at sea. Chronometers were used on ships to determine their position. These tools were essential to navigation and had to be periodically recalibrated to ensure proper recording. A faulty chronometer meant the difference between a safe arrival and being lost at sea.
In the early 1800s, the Royal Navy introduced a land-based visual signal that could send a consistent hour to multiple vessels via the telegraph. Though never terribly successful for use by marine captains, the time ball was installed in 1833 at England’s Royal Observatory in Greenwich and eventually replicated around the world. Both the public and store merchants used time balls to calibrate their own timepieces and the custom came quickly to the United States.
According to a recent article written by Latif Nasser of The New Yorker, “In 1877, Western Union installed a time ball on its Manhattan headquarters, at Broadway and Dey Street. Its firing signal came from the Naval Observatory in Washington, via a dedicated telegraph line, which directed the ball to drop at noon New York time, or about 11:48 A.M. in D.C.”
When Adolph Ochs was publisher of the New York Times and moved the newspaper to a location at 42nd Street, Broadway, and 7th Avenue, in 1904, he convinced the Mayor of New York City to rename the square after the newspaper. In appreciation, Adolph Ochs promised the city of New York a spectacular New Year’s Eve celebration, but it wasn’t until 1907, that the first ball was dropped at One New York Times Square. The New York Times building has since moved, but the tradition and monumental ball drop remains. The ball has dropped every subsequent year, with the exception of 1942 and 1943, during citywide wartime efforts to conserve electricity. Today’s ball is 12-feet in diameter and covered in Waterford crystal triangles. The time is regulated by the US Atomic Clock out of Colorado.
Monumental USA is dedicated to highlighting local monuments and the human stories that lay at their foundation. The desire is to reinvigorate civic pride and sense of ownership through interesting monuments to events and personalities great and small across the nation, with a special focus on local and perhaps obscure or forgotten memorials.