Ever wonder where the year-end ball dropping tradition in Times Square came from? The Atlantic writer, Conor Friedersdorf, wrote a nice piece offering an explanation. Below is his piece, published for Yahoo! News:
On New Year’s Eve, a number of word class cities will harken in 2013 with giant fireworks displays. In New York City, a giant ball suspended above Times Square will slowly descend at midnight.
Until 1903, the largest New Year’s Eve gathering of New Yorkers took place at Trinity Church on Wall Street and Broadway. The New York Times described the scene in 1897: “The crowds came from every section of the city, and among the thousands, who cheered or tooted tin horns, as the chimes were rung out on the night, were many from New Jersey, Long Island, and even Staten Island.” Things were much the same for another half-dozen years. But as December 31, 1904 approached, many party-goers were persuaded to attend a different celebration far uptown.
Until that time, the area where 7th Avenue, Broadway and 42 Street met was called Longacre Square. The Detroit Publishing Company sells a print showing what it looked like back in those days:
That narrow building rising all by itself, then the second tallest in New York City, is the just-finished headquarters of The New York Times newspaper. Its publisher, Alfred Ochs, had successfully lobbied city leaders to change Longacre Square’s name to Times Square earlier that year. He then resolved to throw a New Year’s Eve celebration that would be the talk of the town. “An all-day street festival culminated in a fireworks display set off from the base of the tower,” according to an official history published by the Times Square District Management Association, “and at midnight the joyful sound of cheering, rattles and noisemakers from the over 200,000 attendees could be heard, it was said, from as far away as Croton-on-Hudson, thirty miles north.”
An annual event was born — but two years later, the city prohibited the fireworks display. “Ochs was undaunted,” the official history continues. “He arranged to have a large, illuminated seven-hundred-pound iron and wood ball lowered from the tower flagpole precisely at midnight to signal the end of 1907 and the beginning of 1908.” Thus the origin of today’s celebration.
One Times Square has been home to a ball drop ever since, save in 1942 and 1943, when wartime light restrictions caused it to be canceled. The ball itself has changed with technology. The original ball of iron and wood was replaced in 1920 with a 400 pound orb of all iron. In 1955, an aluminum replacement weighed in at a considerably lighter 150 pounds, and was adorned with 180 light bulbs.The New York Times ran a photograph of that ball in 1978, (six years after Dick Clark starting broadcasting in Times Square). It’s my favorite of any I’ve seen:
Though its bulbs were changed in the 1980s to make it look like an apple, that ball more or less survived until 1995, when it was “upgraded” with aluminum skin, rhinestones and computer controls. Are rhinestones ever an upgrade? Perhaps not. The new ball didn’t last long. Did Y2K play any part in that first computerized ball’s 1999 replacement? Despite some searching I couldn’t find a definitive answer. In any case, a new ball of crystal dropped to mark the millennium.