30 Dec

The revelers are gathering in Times Square New York. It is party central for welcoming in the New Year. Dick Clark is gone. Ryan Seacrest has assumed the mantle of Master of Ceremonies for the New York based global celebration amazingly being continued at great expense, when people are still homeless from Hurricane Sandy, not too many miles away, the world economy is struggling and the Fiscal Cliff looms beggaring the question to be asked, will America drop along with the Crystal LED lit ball.

Few remember or even know the tradition of celebrating New Years. Even fewer know the beginning of the ball drop. Everyone knows the Fiscal Cliff was signed into motion by President Barack Obama seventeen months ago.

The celebration of New Years eve transitioning from December 31 to January 1, saying good bey to the old year and welcoming the New Year, began with the ending of the last day of the Gregorian calendar, the day before New Years Day. The traditions began in several parts of the world. Cultures vary traditions. But in most? At the strike of midnight, people cut cake, pop champagne bottles open, fireworks burst, blow razzy horns and, well, of course, kiss loved ones and strangers, to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, “the good old days” inspired by an Scottish tune, words written by poet Robert Burns. The words were published in 1796, after his death. Revelers making noise was encouraged by the ancient belief evil spirits would be chased away and that good luck would come in place. Father Time, representing the Old Year, hands responsibilities over to the Baby New Year.

Lowering a ball from tall buildings in New York started in the 19th Century to signal to fleets of ships in the New York Harbor, tides and time. Navigators would synchronize their marine chronometers. The navigators needed accurate timekeeping to deermine longitude at sea. The first New York noon time ball drop from the Western Union Telegraph building began in 1877. Details on time balls and observatory time dissemination can be read out in “Sky and Ocean Joined: The US Naval Observatory 1830-2000.” Balls were dropped as time checks for communities. The ball, hung from the tallest building in town, was released exactly at noon every day, by a signal the telegraph company sent out. People would set their clocks by watching the tower and wait for the ball to drop. The time ball was painted wood or metal. The Royal Naval Observatory in Greenwich drops its time ball at 1:00pm every day.

The first time ball was hung in 1829, at Portsmouth England, by its inventor Robert Wauchope, a Captain in the Royal Navy. Time balls spread to other major ports around the Maritime World. Astronomer Royal John Pond, installed a time ball at the Greenwich observatory in 1833. Wauchope had demonstrated his time ball to French and American observers when they came to visit. The first American time ball was deployed in 1845. The US Naval Observatory was established in Washington DC. on Embassy Row, Massachussets Avenue. The Vice President’s house sits on its property adjacent to the British Embassy.

Time balls are dropped in America at noon. Elsewhere in the world they are dropped at 1:00pm. The time ball is raised halfway at five minutes to the hour to warn ships. At two minutes to, the time ball is raised all the way. Time is recorded as the ball drops not when it hits bottom. As with everything, time and practice move on. Radio time, started in Britain in 1924 and time balls gradually faded away by the 1920’s.

Technology has kept time balls changing.

The largest New Year’s eve gathering in New York, until 1903, took place at Wall Street and Broadway, at Trinity Church. Now, Trinity Church has the distinction of being the church closest to the 9/11 Memorial. The World Trade Center collapsed in the shadow of Trinity Church. By 10904, revellers wanted a more uptown celebration. The New York Times publisher Alfred Ochs lobbied city leaders to call Longacre Square, Times Square, named for his paper. Ochs promised to throw a street festival topped off with a fireworks display. At midnight? Ochs kept his word. Revellers basked in their noice of noisemakers, cheering, singing that rocked New York miles up the river.Tradition was born.

Concern over the safety of fireworks causing fire in the city, motivated the city to ban the fireworks. Ashes rained down on spectators heads burning their scalps. Instead, Ochs copied the maritime tradition of ball dropping. Ochs hade a seven hundred pound iron and wood ball lowered from the flag pole at midnight exactly. And this is how New Yorks Time Square began the midnight ball drop tradition that brings tourism to New York every year with people that just have to be there.

The ball drop was closed down during the war years due to night time war restrictions on light.  The 1920 iron and wood ball was replaced with a all iron ball. The iron ball was replaced in 1955 with an aluminum replacement. One hundred and eighty light bulbs lit the ball. There was a failed attempt to make the ball look like New York’s signature Apple. That “ball” failed. A rhinestone, aluminum, computer directed ball replaced the apple ball in 1995. A crystal ball dropped in the transition of 1999 to 2000. LED brought the ball into the green technology era in 2007. In 2008, the ball changed again. The 11,875 waterford crystal triangle covered ball is owned by the owner of One Times Square. How many Waterford crystals? Two thousand six hundred and eighty eight triangles affixed to LED light emitting diodes able to create an amazing kaleidoscope effect from billions of patterns the red, white, blue and green colored LEDs.

Amazing where traditions start and how Father Time marches all of us on…. 


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