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5…4…3…2…1… A Brief History of the Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball Drop

It’s a tradition I’d venture to guess a good majority of us take part in every year (at least by T.V.): the New Year’s Eve Times Square celebration.

Like so many other things, the bash started out as a way to garner a little publicity. When The New York Times moved its headquarters there in 1904, publisher Adolph Ochs convinced the mayor to name the area (then called Longacre Square) for his newspaper. Ochs was more than a little influential – he also managed to finagle a subway stop and the Times Square New Year’s Eve party out of the deal. To mark the end of 1904 and the beginning of 1905, Ochs held a day-long street festival for more than 200,000 people that ended in a huge fireworks display at midnight.

As you might imagine, the Times waxed poetic about its own soiree: “”From base to dome the giant structure was alight – a torch to usher in the newborn year…”

In 1906, the city told Ochs the fireworks were too risky. But that wouldn’t stop the publishing magnate – he had a plan up his sleeve for a 700-pound iron and wood sphere studded with 100 25-watt bulbs that would drop from the Times Building’s flagpole, hitting the base at midnight.

Ochs’ “time ball” wasn’t an original idea, by the way. The first one that we know of was installed in Greenwich at England’s Royal Observatory in 1833. It dropped every day at 1 p.m., letting ship captains know what the exact time was so they could adjust their chronometers accordingly.

But back to New York. Although the Times headquarters moved again just 10 years later, the tradition stayed put, though there have been a few variations since that original iron and wood ball. During WWII, a moment of silence was held at midnight instead of a ball drop. In the ’80s, the ball was given a fruity makeover with red bulbs and a green stem to represent the “I Love New York” campaign. In the early ’90s, the bulbs were switched out for red, white and blue ones to honor the troops in the Gulf War. The whole thing went computerized later that decade, and these days it’s LED lights instead of halogen bulbs.

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December 29th, 2010

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Stranger to the World

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