New Years Eve: The TRUE History of the NYE Ball Drop – REWIND

Originally released January 4th, 2021. The dropping of the ball in NYC’s Times Square on New Years Eve is a tradition seen by billions of people around the world. But did the tradition of dropping a ball start in New York? In this episode, we explore the real history of the dropping ball and quiz my friend, magician Peter Boie!

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The tradition of celebrating New Years Even in New York City’s Times Square, which is the area of Midtown Manhattan made up of the brightly lit intersection of Broadway and West 47th, started in 1904. But it was 3 years later – in 1907 that the famed ball drop began. 

A man named Adolph Ochs owned the New York Times and had been known to present a lavish fireworks display from the New York Times building in Times Square. It was a fantastic way to promote their offices and the newspaper. He had the idea to drop a ball down a pole to mark the passing time into 1908.

That first ball was designed by Artkraft Strauss – a sign company that was known for huge lighted signs around New York, including the famed smoking camel cigarettes billboard. That first New Years Eve ball was made of iron and wood and weighed 700 pounds. Artkraft Strauss’s founder Jacob Starr, adorned his 5’ diameter ball with 100, 25-watt incandescent  lightbulbs. It was a huge hit and became part of an annual tradition that is seen around the world. 

The ball was replaced for the first time in 1920, when it was swapped for a lighter one made entirely out of wrought iron. This lighter, 400 pound ball was used until 1955 when it was replaced again with an aluminum ball that weighed a mere 150 pounds. Throughout most of the 1980s, they added a green stem to convert the ball into the iconic “Big Apple,” but in 1995, it was renovated again and got computer controls to manage the strobe lights. 

In 2000, Philips lighting and Waterford Crystals teamed together to reveal a brand new Times Square Ball completely covered in dazzling crystals. By 2007, all of those incandescent and halogen lights were replaced by LEDs and that’s pretty much the ball we see now. 

It’s there year round now and it’s a permanent fixture on the One Times Square Building. The current New Years Eve ball is 12 feet in diameter and weighs six tons. It’s covered with 2,688 Waterford Crystals and 32,256 LED lights. Incredible. 

Something else that’s interesting. In 1942 and 1943, there was NO New Years Eve dropping of the ball. Can you guess why? 

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mayor LaGuardia and New York Governor Herbert Lehman decided that New York should practice blackouts to prevent a possible air attack. Soon they realized that with New York’s tens of thousands of streetlamps, and signs, a blackout wasn’t possible, so they called it a “dim-out.” You can find photos of New York during this period and they’re absolutely eerie – sort of post-apocalyptic. Giant illuminated signs in Times Square were turned off, building lights weren’t lit and they decided that the New Year’s Eve Ball was part of the Dim Out. For those two years, people still got together in Times Square, but they rang bells to celebrate the New Year without the dropping of the illuminated ball. Those have been the only two times since 1907 that the ball hasn’t dropped.

But the interesting thing here is that the idea of dropping “time balls” didn’t start in New York City.

In 1833, England’s Royal Observatory in Greenwich installed a time ball. It was an idea that had been used 4 years earlier in Portsmouth, England by Robert Wauchope. The Royal Observatory is a building that runs through the prime meridian and has played a major role in astronomy and navigation throughout history. GMT – Greenwich Mean Time – begins here at this building. Well it doesn’t begin there, it’s based on the location of this building – time’s a very strange construct that I don’t mean to get into here. It’s a very important building. And just like we adjust our clocks to Greenwich Mean Time today, people in London adjusted their watches to when the giant ball on top of the building dropped every day at 1pm. These daily time signals helped ship captains set their chronometers. They would raise halfway 5 minutes before 1pm and then raised the rest of the way a couple minutes later. Unlike the Times Square Ball, the 1pm time was recorded when the ball STARTED dropping, not when it got to the bottom of the poll. 

In The United States Naval Academy in Washington, DC a time ball descends from a flagpole a noon every day. 

While there are about 150 recognizable time balls throughout the world, this idea dates WAY before those. In fact, Ancient Greek clocks were placed in the middle of their cities and were adorned with a little ball that fell. Procopius mentions this in his book on edifices in the city of Gaza in the 6th century. It’s not the same as the recognizable giant dropping ball that we’re talking about, but it’s worth mentioning.

So there you have it! Everything you ever needed to know about the history of Time Balls. So next New Year’s Eve when a billion people watch the ball drop in Times Square, you can tell your friends and family about the real history of the tradition.

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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