The Origins of Times Square’s Iconic New Year’s Eve Ball Drop
On the roof of One Times Square, an impressive 141 feet above the swell of tourists and revelers, sits the Times Square Ball. For over 100 years, New York’s ball drop has been a symbol of New Year’s Eve worldwide. But, when you really think about it, a ball "drop" — and by "drop" we mean the ball leisurely coasts down a flagpole in 60 seconds — seems like a fairly random way to ring in the new year.
Since 1904, Times Square has been the site of New Year’s Eve celebrations — back when it was just a rooftop party with fireworks. In 1907, Adolph Ochs, then-owner of The New York Times, wanted something to complement the fireworks display he was organizing at the new Times headquarters. Ball "dropping" has signified the passage of time since antiquity: Ancient Greeks, for example, dropped time balls to publicly display the time to citizens. In 1833, the first modern time ball was installed in Greenwich, England, where it fell at 1 p.m. daily.
Moreover, nothing says "status symbol" like a giant sphere. That may sound glib, but it’s true: Built by an immigrant metalworker named Jacob Starr, the first iron-and-wood New Year’s Eve ball was decorated in a whopping 100 25-watt incandescent light bulbs. On December 31, Artkraft Strauss — Starr’s sign-making company — was also responsible for lowering the 700-pound sphere. Since the ball drop that ushered in 1908, the event has been held every year, except during 1942 and 1943 due to wartime blackouts.
Changes to the Times Square Ball
Over the years, the Times Square Ball’s design has reflected changes in lighting technology and, since that first light bulb-adorned ball in 1907, seven incarnations of the sphere have been used in the celebrations. The original ball was first replaced in 1920 by a 400-pound one made entirely of wrought iron. (Probably good to eliminate the flammable wood.) Looking to lighten the mood, an aluminum ball weighing just 150 pounds took the stage in 1955.
Manhattan’s Celebrations of Yesteryear
And the crowds? Well, although we may poke fun at New Year’s Eve glasses that are stylized to look like the incoming year — never forget those iconic 2-0-0-0 spectacles — revelers back in 1907 were just as into the celebratory kitsch of the holiday. In addition to gathering outside, folks took their meals at "lobster palaces" and the other high-end hotel restaurants that lined Times Square. Believe it or not, many of them donned battery-powered top hats with "1908" fashioned from tiny light bulbs decorating the front. When midnight hit, these partygoers were instructed to literally "flip their (hat) lids" in order to light the "1908." On cue, Times Square’s very own 1908 sign lit up as well.
Modern Festivities in the Big Apple
Since then, arguably the most substantial New Year’s Eve party was the Big Apple’s millennium bash. It is estimated that over 1 million folks surged into Times Square to usher in the year 2000. That enormous crowd was entertained by 1,000 workers and volunteers, 500 musicians, dancers and actors, and 160 gigantic puppets — all for an event that cost organizers an estimated $7 million.