When the Times Square Ball Drop Began at Midnight
Good morning. Today we’ll find out why the ball in Times Square doesn’t fall when it once did. Hint: An all-but-forgotten shift of a few seconds can make the difference.
Michael Miscione, the former Manhattan borough historian, did some digging and discovered that something has changed in the years since the first New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square. He explains:
If you could be transported through time and space to Times Square on the night of Dec. 31, 1907, much would seem familiar: the boisterous crowd with the drunks and crazies — and, of course, the ball drop.
It was the fourth year there had been a celebration in Times Square. In 1904, the first year, fireworks were launched from the roof of One Times Square. In 1905 and 1906, The New York Times, which sponsored the celebration in those days, opted for something less likely to burn down the neighborhood: a flashing electric light display.
For 1907, The Times came up with the ball drop. The first ball seems anemic by modern standards. It was five feet in diameter and contained 100 ordinary 25-watt light bulbs, according to the official Times Square website, although The Times reported that it had 216 lamps, not 100. Either way, it was a no-frills affair.
And it dropped at a different time than we are accustomed to. It started its descent at midnight. For us, the ball drop is a countdown, not a starter’s pistol.
This would have made sense to sailors. The Times Square sphere functioned as what old-time mariners call a time ball — a time signal dropped at an agreed-upon moment from a place that ships can see. In the days of sail, a ship’s navigator needed an accurately set clock to correctly determine his vessel’s location at sea.
The most famous time ball is atop Greenwich Observatory in England. It was installed in 1833 and it still functions, mostly for the benefit of tourists, not ships. At 12:58 p.m. every day, the ball is hoisted to the top of its post, and at 1 p.m., it drops. Its descent is not quite a free-fall, but fast enough to reach the bottom of the post in only a few seconds. New York City has a time ball, although it is symbolic, not functional. It is atop the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse at the South Street Seaport.
So, since maritime time balls had been in use for decades and were familiar to people in the early 1900s, it’s no surprise that the early Times Square balls were based on them. It would be surprising if they weren’t.
But that raises the inevitable question: When was the transition to the countdown-style ball drop we know today?
I did a deep dive in The New York Times’s digital archive and concluded that it happened on Dec. 31, 1938.
The ball drop on Dec. 31, 1937, had been like the one in 1907. “When the illuminated ball dropped down the staff on top of the Times Building at the instant of midnight, a roar of voices and horns went up,” The Times reported on Jan. 1, 1908.
The 1938 drop was different. Again, from The Times: “At exactly three seconds to midnight, at his lofty station atop the Times Building, Thomas Ward, electrician who first officiated at the ‘dropping of the ball’ in 1914, celebrated his silver jubilee by pulling a switch that sent the bulb-studded globe sliding down the sixty-five-foot flagpole. It was precisely midnight when it reached the base.” The article added that Ward then pulled another switch to illuminate the numerals for the new year — 1,9,3 and 9.
The following year, the drop was lengthened to five seconds. Eventually, of course, it would become 60 seconds.
Perhaps the change in 1938 went unnoticed because there were more newsworthy attractions to cover that night. The opening of the 1939 World’s Fair was just four months away, and the fair’s publicity machine had concocted a stunt: The “Girl of Tomorrow” — Gladys Bensen, 18, from Jamaica, Queens — climbed out from a miniature “Perisphere,” the giant white orb that, paired with the elongated pyramidal “Trylon,” was a symbol of the fair.
The future-looking fair would predict lasting changes in technology, fashion and lifestyles. But in one small way, the world had already changed when Ward pulled his switch. The New Year’s Eve Times Square ball drop would never be the same.
Enjoy another sunny day with mild temps in the low 50s. At night, there will be patchy fog and temps will be around the low 40s.
In effect until Sunday (New Year’s Day).
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Every week since 1976, Metropolitan Diary has published stories by, and for, New Yorkers. Readers helped us pick the best Diary entry of the year, and Rock-Paper-Scissors was a finalist in this year’s voting.
It is 2 a.m. I dash up the subway stairs to catch the F back to Manhattan.
Just as I get to the platform, the train doors close and the train begins to pull away. The digital message board says the next one will arrive in 20 minutes.
I wander over to a bench and sit. As I wait for the train, a boy runs merrily up the stairs onto the platform. He has a huge smile on his face while he stares across the tracks at the other platform.
A girl there beams back at him. They start to play rock-paper-scissors. They don’t say a word. They play about six rounds, laughing and giggling at the end of each one.
The train on the opposite track whooshes into the station, cutting the boy and girl off from each other. Seconds later, she appears in the train window, smiling again and waving goodbye.
The boy waves back as he watches her train pull away.
— Pamela Ingebrigtson
Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.
Glad we could get together here. Happy new year! See you on Tuesday. — J.B.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.
Morgan Malget and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at email@example.com.