What Are the Origins of Times Square’s Iconic New Year’s Eve Ball Drop?

By Jamie GreysonLast Updated Jan 11, 2021 2:46:13 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

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 one of many symbols 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.

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Photo Courtesy: Jeff Neira/Walt Disney Television/Getty Images; Lorenzo Bevilaqua/Walt Disney Television/Getty Images

After a short stint as a Big Apple — with red light bulbs and a green stem — between 1981 and 1988, a ball with white light bulbs was used until 1995, when computer controls, rhinestones and strobe lights were added. Most notably, Waterford Crystal and Philips Lighting redesigned the ball for the year 2000 celebration, combining the latest tech with traditional materials as an ode to the new millennium.

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For the 100th anniversary of the ball drop, the duo teamed up again to craft a ball made of dazzling crystal pieces and LED lights, which made the ball brighter and capable of shining in a myriad of hues. The "Centennial Ball" inspired the owners of One Times Square to commission a six-ton "Big Ball," complete with 2,688 Waterford crystal triangles and over 32,000 LEDs. Now, this permanent landmark sparkles above Times Square.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

On the New Year’s Eves that fell during wartime blackouts, crowds still gathered at One Times Square. But instead of blowing tin horns, New Yorkers partook in a moment of silence, which ended once chimes sounded from trucks parked at the base of the landmark’s iconic tower. This more muted approach to the festive night was reminiscent of the New Year’s Eve celebrations that were once held at Manhattan’s Trinity Church. (Hence the phrase "ringing in the new year.")

The photograph above shows tens of thousands of merrymakers jammed into Times Square in 1944 — the first year after the celebrations that were curbed by the blackouts. The original caption for the photo calls Times Square a "hardened artery" and notes that the send-off to the old year was "noisy" and "raucous." The writer also noted that, despite the spectacular turnout, "the shortage of liquor made the celebration slightly less hilarious than usual, but there [were] headaches enough to go around [in the] morning."

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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.

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Photo Courtesy: @Billboard/Twitter

To usher in 2019, the New York City Police Department estimated that nearly 2 million party-goers packed Times Square to watch the ball drop amidst 3,000 pounds of confetti. While these numbers are up for debate, there’s no doubt Times Square is where everyone wants to be on the big night. Forget yesteryear’s "lobster palaces." And if you want to dine in Times Square on future December 31st’s that aren’t, you know, in the midst of a pandemic, it’ll cost you $400 just to get a seat at the below-average Olive Garden; meanwhile, Bubba Gump Shrimp on 44th Street charges $799 per person for shrimp and partial views of the ball drop.

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Clearly, much has changed since 1904’s quaint rooftop party and fireworks, so much so that the official Times Square website touts that "New Year's Eve at the symbolic center of New York City has become more than just a celebration — it's a global tradition." Of course, things will look different as we usher in 2021; while there will be live performances on December 31 (and into January 1) in Times Square, the events will be closed to the public due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. And while this New Year’s Eve might look a bit different, you can still bid good riddance to 2020 by watching the Times Square broadcast from the safety of your living room.