New Year’s Eve 2013 – Drop the Ball!

Dropping a ball in New York City’s Times Square dates back to 1907. But why is it done?

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Marking time by a ball drop started in 1833, when England’s Royal Observatory at Greenwich installed a ball that would drop at one o’clock each afternoon.

Time ball stations set their clocks according to transit observations of the position of the sun. This allowed the captains of nearby ships to set their navigational instruments precisely. (What, you may ask, does longitude have to do with time? Since the Earth rotates at a steady rate of 360° every twenty-four hours, or 15° per hour (in mean solar time), there is a direct relationship. If you know what time it is, you can figure out where you are.)

Note that a meridian is a line of longitude.

Note that a meridian is a line of longitude.

The first “time-ball” was invented by Robert Wauchope, an admiral in the British Navy who had more free time than he otherwise might have; he had trouble getting a ship to command on account of his opposition to allowing prostitutes on board.

Scientists and inventors were struggling at the time with the challenge to perfect the calculation of longitude for sailers. As we have seen above, in order to achieve accuracy, it was essential that a ship’s marine chronometer have the correct time. Unfortunately, the astronomical calculations to ensure this could only conveniently be made in observatories. Wauchope came up with the idea of signaling ships from high points of observatories. He described his plan to the British Admiralty, and his “time ball” device was tested in 1829. Four years later, the Royal Observatory had a time ball in operation.

The Royal Observatory Timeball Tower, Greenwich

The Royal Observatory Timeball Tower, Greenwich

With the success of the Greenwich time ball, others were installed around the world, including one at the U.S. Naval Observatory in 1845. This ball, also designed by Wauchope, was dropped every day at noon. But standardization was still necessary. By an international decree in 1884, the determination of time by the Royal Observatory at Greenwich became the official starting point for each new day, year and millennium. It was the logical choice since, at that time, most of the world’s commerce depended on sea-charts using Greenwich as the Prime Meridian.

Time Ball, U.S. Naval Observatory

Time Ball, U.S. Naval Observatory

The Time’s Square Ball, a very specialized time-ball, was erected several years after revelers picked that location to celebrate New Year’s Eve. The first ball, launched in 1907 to celebrate the arrival of 1908, was made of iron and wood and weighed 700 pounds. Six improvements followed, culminating in the current version, a geodesic sphere weighing 11,875 pounds and covered with 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles. It is illuminated by over thirty thousand LEDs (light emitting diodes), each module of which contains 12 each of red, blue, green, and white LEDs. Thus, it can produce a palette of more than 16 million colors and billions of patterns.

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The Times Square ball has been lowered every year since 1907, except during 1942 and 1943, because of World War II blackouts. Today, an estimated one million people flock to Times Square each year to watch the ball drop.

Happy New Year!!!

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10 Responses

  1. I love how I can always learn something when I visit you! That is fascinating. I’ve been reading the post to my husband to educate him this morning, but we both agree there is no way in hell we would be there in person EVER.

  2. What Sandy said! Happy New Year, Jill :)

  3. Thank you for this history! I have been wondering about it but have been too lazy to find out the story behind it!

  4. Who knew? I would love to be in Times Square for this event one year. Of course, I want it to be 85 degrees out when it happens.

  5. And isn’t it cool that Justice Sotomayor will be the one to let the ball drop this year! Many many thanks for all of the fascinating tidbits you offer, always. Happy New Year!

  6. Love the history lesson! Happy New Year Jill.

  7. I intend to be blotto’d by the time the ball drops later tonight, Jill, but thanks for explaining the science and the history behind this event anyway. Happy New Year to you and Mr. Rhapsody and your loved ones!

  8. One million crazy people flock to Times Square. You forgot an important word.
    Happy New Year :)

  9. Great post. Unlike Kathy, I never want to be in Times Square for New Years Eve. I’m not a crowd person. Happy new year!!

  10. I had no idea! Thanks, Jill!

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