6. The Ball Drop Has Maritime Roots

The Titanic Memorial lighthouse and time ball at the Southstreet Seaport

The New York Times electrician we mentioned before got the idea for the New Year’s Eve ball drop after seeing the Western Union’s own metallic time-ball drop from a spire atop the nearby building. Unlike the Times Square ball, Western Union’s wasn’t just for show. Rather, the ball was dropped every day at noon so that pedestrians and ship captains could synchronize their clocks and watches.

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 one o’clock in the afternoon every day, letting the captains of nearby ships accurately set their chronometers. Nearly 150 public time-balls were believed to have been established worldwide (though most haven’t survived) for such time-telling purposes after the Royal Observatory time-ball went up. In 1884, someone actually proposed to install one at the top of the Washington Monument. You can find another time-ball (though not functioning) in New York City atop the Titanic Memorial at the South Street Seaport.