In just a few hours, hundreds of thousands of people will gather in New York City’s Times Square while up to a billion more watch from home as a massive ball covered in crystal panes and multicolored LEDs drops at the stroke of midnight. It’s one of the Big Apple’s most iconic events, but just a little more than a century ago, New Year’s Eve celebrations were a very different kind of affair.
Up until 1904, public New Year’s celebrations in New York City weren’t nearly as riotous. As Atlas Obscura’s Kat Long writes, most people attended the relatively low-key celebrations at Manhattan's Trinity Church to hear hymns, carols, and ringing bells at midnight, which was followed by the New Year's day tradition of men greeting women in their parlors. Times Square wasn’t even called Times Square until 1904 when the New York Times’ owner, Adolf Ochs, decided to build a new headquarters for the newspaper on 42nd Street, then known as “Longacre Square.” It was renamed that spring, and Ochs decided he would celebrate with a giant New Year’s Eve party to ring in 1905.
Ochs' first Times Square New Year’s Eve Party had no ball. Instead, workers fired off a dynamite bomb from the top of One Times Square a few minutes before midnight, and shot fireworks from the building’s top floors to mark the new year, Long reports. The hot ashes that rained down from the explosives caused the New York police department to ban fireworks, forcing Ochs to find a new, less fiery way to celebrate.
During the early 19th century, before time was standardized, most American cities kept their own time based on the sun, Latif Nasser wrote for the New Yorker. Telling the time at sea was crucial for navigation, as it was the best way for ship captains to determine their longitude, and so at the time, most ships relied on marine chronometers to help them navigate. But the clunky watch-like devices needed constant – and costly – recalibration to keep them accurate. Then in 1818, Captain Robert Wauchope of the British Royal Navy came up with a plan. Sick of having to regularly pay a heavy price to have his chronometer tuned, Wauchope proposed a new system of signals transmitted to help ship captains keep time more easily, Nasser writes.
The captain devised a system of balls and flagpoles that could be erected at naval observatories along the coast. In his design, each flagpole had two balls five feet in diameter, with one secured at the top of the pole. At the top of each hour, the bottom ball would fall down, which would let observant navigators check their chronometers against the official time, which would be standardized across observatories via telegraph signal, Nasser reports.
Though the ball drop was made obsolete for navigational purposes by the end of the 19th century thanks to the invention of the self-winding watch, the concept fit into Ochs' New Year’s Eve plans. So on the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1906, a 700-pound, 5-foot-wide ball covered in 100 light bulbs dropped from the top of a pole at the peak of the New York Times Building. While the ball itself has changed over the years (these days it weighs almost 12,000 pounds and is lit by 32,256 LEDs, according to the Times Square Alliance), that first drop kicked off a tradition that continues to this day.