GIF by Untapped Cities/Michelle Young
It’s that time of year again: the flashing New Year’s Eve ball waiting to descend from One Times Square, upbeat performances from celebrities, vibrantly colored confetti, and huge excited crowds standing for hours anticipating the new year.
Every year, millions of people watch the 12-foot wide, 11,875 pound ball drop 141 feet in Times Square, either in person or on television. However, many don’t know how this worldwide famous event came about. So just in time for the new year, here are our favorite secrets of the New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square.
10. Trinity Church Used to be the Site of New Year’s Eve Celebrations
Before Times Square took over, the area near the base of Trinity Church was filled with celebratory noise and large crowds on New Year’s Eve. The church, located at 75 Broadway in lower Manhattan, has a tall and narrow steeple that forces the sounds of its bells outward, rather than inwards and into the sanctuary. Because of this, the bells were rung at midnight to announce the new year. During some years, as many as 15,000 people would show up.
In his book Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York, Richard Zacks provides a detailed description of the celebration ushering in 1896. He wrote, “The people…waited for the famed church bells to peal in the New Year with a dozen-tune hourlong medley starting at 11:30 PM and climaxing with ‘Happy New Year’ at midnight.” ‘
Peddlers would sell five-cent tin trumpets, penny kazoos, Dutch watch rattles, slide whistles, and horns called “laughing hyenas.” Teenage gangs pulled petty pranks and people freely passed along liquor bottles since public consumption of alcohol was legal. Zacks wrote, “At the stroke of midnight, the world-famous chimes-man played ‘Happy New Year to Thee’ and then later added ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ and ‘Home, Sweet Home.’”
9. New York Times Owner Was Responsible For the First New Year’s Eve Ball Drop in Times Square
Times Building, c. 1906. Photo from Library of Congress.
You might be surprised to know that it was the famous New York Times owner Adolph Ochs who started the New Year’s Eve tradition of dropping a ball in Times Square. The New York Times moved into One Times Square in 1903; Ochs then persuaded the city to rename the area around the building “Times Square” (formerly “Longacre Square”)
To promote the new headquarters, the NY Times held a New Year’s Eve event (ushering in the year 1904), on December 31, 1903. They set fireworks off the building’s roof at midnight. They continued to do this until 1907, when the city banned the fireworks display. Ochs wanted to create an even attention-seeking celebration in Times Square. At the suggestion of the newspaper’s head electrician, Walter Painer, he used a 700-pound “time ball” with lights to attract crowds after seeing a ball in use at the top of the nearby Western Union building.
Though the Times moved out of the building about ten years later, the tradition continued and lured away crowds from the celebrations at Trinity Church.
8. Light Up Hats Were Once Used to Ring in the New Year
For the 1907-1908 festivities, waiters in “lobster palaces,” the gaudy restaurants that surrounded Times Square at the time, had battery-powered top hats reading “1908” in small light bulbs.
The second it became midnight, the waiters all “flipped their lids” and the year number on their hats lit up at the same time as the year number on the parapet of One Times Square did.
7. The New Year’s Eve Ball Drop Was Suspended in 1942 and 1943 Due To the War
The only years the ball hasn’t dropped since 1907 was 1942 and 1943. During these years, the New Year’s Eve ceremony was suspended as part of the wartime “dimout” of lights in New York City. These dimouts were done to protect the city from Axis bombings. According to the New York Times, though there weren’t any continuous nightly dimouts in New York City, there would sometimes be blackout drills. In 1942 the Army said that the glow from New York City silhouetted offshore ships, making them easy targets. Thus, the advertising signs in Times Square had to go dark.
However, huge crowds still gathered in Times Square, instead welcoming the New Year with a minute of silence followed by the sounds of chimes from sound trucks parked at the tower’s base.
6. Early New Year’s Eve Ball Drops Weren’t Celebratory
The New York Times electrician we mentioned before got the idea for the New Year’s Eve ball drop after seeing the one atop the nearby Western Union building’s own metallic time-ball they dropped from a spire. Unlike the Times Square ball, this one didn’t have celebratory intentions. Rather, it was dropped everyday at noon so that pedestrians and ship captains could synchronize their clocks and watches.
In fact, the whole concept of a “time-ball” dates back to as early as 1833, when the first one was built on top of England’s Royal Observatory. The ball would drop at every one o’clock in the afternoon, letting the captains of nearby ships to accurately set their chronometers.
After this installation, about 150 public time-balls were believed to have been established around the world (though most haven’t survived) for such time-telling purposes. In 1884, someone actually proposed to install one at the top of the Washington Monument.
5. The First New Year’s Eve Times Square Ball Weighed About 17 Times Less Than The Current Ball
The current ball used is very different from the 1907 one
In contrast, the current one is 11,875 pounds, has a 12-foot diameter, and is covered in 2,688 Waterford crystals.
4. The New Year’s Eve Ball Drop Is Initiated by a Laser-Cooled Atomic Clock In Colorado
Today, however, the ball drop is electronically timed with a laser-cooled atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado. This clock is the primary time standard for the U.S.
3. The Confetti on New Year’s Eve Contains Wishes Written By Visitors
The Times Square New Year’s Eve Wishing Wall
The confetti that rains down after midnight on New Year’s Eve isn’t just regular confetti. These colorful shreds actually have wishes for the coming year from visitors around the world written on them. People can write these wishes either via the Times Square New Year’s Eve Virtual Wishing Wall or written in person at the Times Square Visitors Center and Museum.
You can read our piece about this and see pictures here.
2. The Times Square Ball Drop Has Inspired Similar (Sometimes Bizarre) New Year’s Eve Drops Across the Country
Footage of the 2013 Walleye Drop
It’s no surprise that the Times Square ball drop set a precedent for other versions of New Year’s Eve ball drops around the country. However, what is surprising is the bizarreness of some of the celebrations.
For instance, Port Clinton, Ohio is home to the Walleye Drop. For the past 20 years in Port Clinton, the “Walleye Capital of the World,” a 20-foot long, 600-pound fiberglass walleye is dropped at midnight. There’s also the Moonpie drop in Alabama, the Cherry Blossom ball drop in Georgia, the Guitar drop in Memphis, and the Idaho potato drop in Boise.
1. There’s a Secret Vault in One Times Square With Old New Year’s Eve Items and the Millennium Ball
A New York Times article went behind the scenes 50 feet below One Times Square, where a vault that served as the the electrical room starting in the 1960s lies.
Within the dusty vault sits the retired Millennium Ball from 2000, in addition former New Year’s Eve items like a shelf with “silly looking hats from 1976” and T-shirts from 1997.
Bonus: The Current New Year’s Eve Ball Is Also Stored in One Times Square
One Times Square is one of the emptiest, yet most profitable buildings in Midtown Manhattan, and makes money off its billboards instead of rent.
One of the few things that do occupy the building is the New Year’s Eve Ball, which is stored at the top. See more photos from our exploration to see the ball in its non New Year’s Eve habitat.
Next, check out The Top 10 Secrets of Times Square NYC, Vintage Photos: The Evolution of Times Square from 1898 to Today, and The Evolution of the New Year’s Eve Times Square Ball in NYC From 1907 to Present. Get in touch with the author @sgeier97.