All the world watches the festivities in Times Square to count down to the start of the new year. It’s one moment where everyone stops to check the time, but why is a lighted ball the designated timekeeper? The history of the New Year’s Eve celebration and the Times Square ball drop is a fascinating one, and the journey begins well before electricity lit up the city that never sleeps.
The idea of dropping a ball as a marker of time actually began as a way to help ship captains set their clocks for their long journeys away from land, clocks and church bells. In England, a Royal Navy captain decided to drop a large red ball from the top of a mast in the harbor, thinking that all nearby ships could set their timepieces by observing it. It worked and became a valuable asset to sailors around the world in the 1830s.
Though New Yorkers began celebrating New Year’s Eve in the newly christened Times Square in 1904, the first ball wasn’t dropped to mark the occasion until 1907. The first illuminated ball, made of iron and wood, was a substitute for fireworks, which the city banned due to fire concerns. Its 100 25-watt lightbulbs were a glittering look at an electrifying future, and a tradition took root.
The original 1907 ball was replaced with a lighter model in 1920. This version eliminated the wood in favor of all wrought iron. The ball shed even more weight in 1955, when the first aluminum ball was dropped. In the 1980s, that aluminum ball was given a stem and red lights to look like the Big Apple. In the 1990s, the ball was given several makeovers with colored lights and rhinestones, but the aluminum ball was finally retired in 1998.
In the year 2000, Waterford Crystal and Phillips Electric paired up to design a crystal-encrusted ball to ring in the new millennium. Since then, the ball has been redesigned to use efficient LED lighting in a range of colors and designs.
Though the size, structure and look of the ball has changed, one thing has not: All eyes are on Times Square each Dec. 31, and New Yorkers show the world how to throw a truly spectacular celebration.