Why Do We Drop a Ball on New Year’s Eve?

DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images

Why Do We Drop a Ball on New Year’s Eve?

Party like it's 1908
Why Do We Drop a Ball on New Year’s Eve?

DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images

On Dec. 31, 1907, a 700-pound wood and iron ball wrapped in 100 25-watt lightbulbs descended from a flagpole above Times Tower in New York City. Once the clock struck midnight, waiters at nearby establishments flipped fancy caps fashioned with battery-powered light-up signs denoting the new year: 1908. 

Thus began the Times Square Ball Drop tradition. Now, seven balls and over a century later, much of the United States still looks to Times Square for the official stateside welcome of a new year. While Times Square may be what comes to mind for many when envisioning a New Year’s ball drop, New York was not the first to mark the passage of time with the fall of a sphere far above the heads of people below. 

Captain Robert Wauchope of the English Royal Navy is credited with being the first to have thought of signaling a specific time with the drop of a ball above a high-enough building. Wauchope was interested in assisting other ship captains in accurately calibrating their time-telling chronometers. He first tested his idea in 1829 in an English dockyard, where a large ball descended down a flagpole at noon each day, allowing captains to sync their chronometers.

A variation of Wauchope’s time ball was installed atop England’s Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1833. Each day at 12:55 p.m. the bright red ball would rise to the mid-point of its mast. By 12:58 p.m. it reached the top. Then at 1 p.m., the ball would drop, producing a rippling thud. Prior to the Greenwich time ball, clocks and watches were the rich’s wear, while common people relied on public sundials. For this reason, this new means of sharing a common time was welcomed. 

However, the time balls never proved too helpful for the ship captains for whom Wauchope first developed the technology. A ship’s chronometer is situated below deck, leaving the time ball out of sight. Still, the Greenwich time ball proved to be helpful enough for some and 150 similar time balls were installed worldwide — including one in New York in 1877.

In 1904, Adolph Ochs, the owner of the New York Times, began hosting extravagant New Year’s parties complete with fireworks displays outside Times Tower. In 1907, the city banned the fireworks and Ochs decided to instead drop the now-famous ball.  

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In the century since, communities and cities across the nation have adopted and adapted New York’s prized New Year’s tradition. States like Idaho, Florida and Georgia have substituted the classic sphere for objects more inline with their state culture. Boise, Idaho, drops a potato, Las Cruces, New Mexico, drops a chile and Nashville, Tennessee, drops a music note. Whether your state drops a ball, a plush possum or nothing at all, there’s sure to be something fun to do on New Year’s Eve.