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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Why Does a Ball Drop in Times Square on New Year's Eve?

Greetings faithful blog readers!

We hope that where ever you are you are ramping up to celebrate (or if you are in Asia, have already celebrated) a wonderful end to 2009 and start to 2010.

One of the most frequently asked questions we get when we are leading tours in Midtown is: "Why does a ball drop in Times Square on New Year's Eve?" So, in honor of that imminent event, we thought we'd re-run last year's New Year's Eve blog post (below, brought slightly up to date), which answers the question.

Enjoy your holiday, stay safe, and we'll blog again in 2010!

Michelle & James Nevius

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Tonight, an estimated billion people around the world will watch the illuminated ball drop in Times Square to ring in the new year. This New Year’s tradition dates back 102 years—the dropping ball replaced an earlier fireworks display—but the notion of dropping a ball as a way of keeping time is an older tradition.

In 1877, a ball was added to the top of the Western Union Building on Lower Broadway. Each day at noon, a telegraph signal from Western Union’s main office in Washington, DC, would trip a switch in New York and the ball would descend from the flagpole. Visible throughout the Financial District—and, more importantly, from all the ships in the harbor—it allowed people to reset their watches and ship chronometers. For the first time, New York ran on a standard time.

As the New York Times noted in 1877, this idea of a ball dropping to keep the time wasn’t new. For many years prior to the Civil War, the New York custom house had signaled the time with a ball drop and in the 1870s it was common to find time balls in major European ports. However, when it began operation in April 1877, the Western Union ball was the only one in a North American port and quickly became a fixture of the Manhattan skyline.

(Western Union, afraid that it wasn’t always going to work, set up a system whereby a red flag would be flown from 12:01 to 12:10 p.m. on days that the ball refused to drop. Further, information would be sent to the press each day informing them whether the ball actually dropped at noon or had fallen at the wrong time!)

In 1907, the New York Times—then owners of the skyscraper from which the ball drops on New Year’s Eve—adopted the time ball as their symbol for ushering in the new year. That original Times Square ball, made of iron and wood and lit by 25 incandescent lights, weighed 700 pounds!

In 1911, the original Western Union Building was demolished by the company’s new owners, AT&T, so they could erect a larger structure. (That impressive marble building, known as 195 Broadway, still stands.) Plans called for a new time ball, but by the time the new AT&T headquarters was finished, the ball had been replaced by a giant, gilded statue by Evelyn Beatrice Longman called The Genius of Electricity. (The statue remained on the building until 1980, when it was removed, restored, and installed in lobby of the AT&T headquarters in Midtown. It now resides in Dallas, Texas.)

For the past year, the Times Square ball has not only been lit by energy-efficient LED diodes, for the first time it stayed atop the old Times Building year round so that everyone who visited New York in 2009 could see the actual ball that drops on New Year’s Eve. Presumably it will stay atop its pole again in 2010.

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Read more about the history of Times Square in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City

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Piraro said...

I'm totally hooked on your blog. Loved this entry about the New Year's Eve ball and the AT&T building. You guys rock.

That statue of The Genius of Electricity is beautiful. I lived in Dallas until 2002 but have never seen it. Any idea where it is?

James and Michelle said...

The statue was actually in Basking Ridge, NJ, until this year. When AT&T moved its corporate headquarters to Dallas just this past year, the statue went with them.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting piece. I just saw a friends photo with the ball in the backgroung. This make me ask why I had never seen the ball during my visits to the city. The last trip was ten years or more.

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