Few things have endured and become a part of the American tradition like the famed New Year’s Eve Times Square ball drop in New York City. All the while, we have watched for decades, not really knowing why. Why do we drop a ball to welcome the new year? Let’s take a look.
Why Drop A Ball At All?
The idea of a “ball” dropping and its link to time predates any festivities focusing on New Year’s Eve. According to the Royal Museums of Greenwich, a time ball was first installed on the roof of the Royal Observatory of Greenwich in 1833 and has “dropped” every single day since at exactly 1 p.m. In those days, it allowed naval officers to set their instruments properly -- and citizens to set their watches properly.
Today, the act has no temporal value, but it continues for the benefit of tourists.
The First Ball Drop In Times Square
Photographic evidence shows New Year’s Eve celebrations taking place in Times Square as far back as 1904. But according to the Times Square Alliance, it wasn’t until 1907 that a New Year’s Eve ball made an appearance. That year, a ball made of iron and wood, and decorated with 100 25-watt light bulbs, was lowered from a flagpole at the top of The New York Times’ headquarters, otherwise known as One Times Square.
“As part of the 1907-1908 festivities, waiters in the fabled ‘lobster palaces’ and other deluxe eateries in hotels surrounding Times Square were supplied with battery-powered top hats emblazoned with the numbers ‘1908’ fashioned of tiny light bulbs,” according to the Times Square Alliance. “At the stroke of midnight, they all ‘flipped their lids’ and the year on their foreheads lit up in conjunction with the numbers ‘1908’ on the parapet of the Times Tower lighting up to signal the arrival of the new year.”
This tradition continues to this day, with revelers wearing oversized sunglasses and hats displaying the numerals of the upcoming year.
The Ball Drop Through The Years
Since 1907, the ball has been lowered every single December 31, with a couple of exceptions. Due to the United States’ entry into World War II, there were no New Year’s Eve ball drops in 1942 or 1943 due to the wartime “dimout” of New York City lights.
In 1920, the wooden ball was replaced with a new version made from wrought iron. That ball lasted 35 years, until it was replaced with an aluminum version weighing just 150 pounds. This ball lasted well into the 1980s, when thanks to the popular “I Love New York” marketing campaign, the ball was creatively transformed into a “Big Apple.” This version of the aluminum ball lasted until 1988.
In 1995, it was time for another update. An aluminum skin was added, as well as rhinestones, strobes, and computer controls. This ball was last used on December 31, 1998.
To ring in the new millennium, the ball was completely redone by Waterford Crystal and Philips Lighting. The new ball was a marvel of old-world tradition and 21st-century technology.
In 2007, to mark the centennial anniversary of the first Times Square ball drop, Waterford and Philips teamed up again to create a new LED crystal Ball. “The incandescent and halogen bulbs of the past century were replaced by state-of-the-art Philips Luxeon LED lighting technology that dramatically increased the brightness and color capabilities of the Ball,” writes the Times Square Alliance.
The popularity of the Centennial Ball prompted a massive overhaul of Times Squares’s entire New Year’s Eve tradition. Owners of the One Times Square building constructed a new and permanent “Big Ball.” The ball is now a year-round attraction on public view every day in Times Square.
2021 Times Square Ball Facts
The 2021 Times Square Ball is a geodesic sphere weighing nearly six tons. It is 12 feet in diameter and is completley covered with 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles. Some 32,256 LEDs light up the ball.
New for 2021, the 2,688 Waterford crystals are broken up into several designs, each designed with a special “gift” in mind. Grouped into sections of 192 crystals, the groups’ designs signify gifts of happiness, goodwill, harmony, serenity, kindness, wonder, and fortitude. The remaining 1,344 crystals are dedicated to the gift of imagination.
This year, when the New Year’s Eve Ball reaches its final position to mark the new year, its lights will turn off and the numerals 2021 will turn on. The magical numbers are seven feet high and are lit by 526 9-watt LED bulbs. The four numerals weigh a total of 1,080 pounds.