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