Why Do We Watch A Ball Drop On New Year’s Eve?

By | December 5, 2019

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The One Times Square Building is suddenly cloaked in fireworks and confetti as the clock strikes midnight during the Times Square New Year’s celebration, Dec. 31, 2011. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Every year on December 31, thousands of people gather in Times Square to ring in the new year. This televised New Year’s Eve celebration, which is watched by millions of people around the globe, is often accompanied by fireworks and live entertainment. But the highlight of the event occurs as the clock changes from 11:59 PM to 12:00 AM, and the glittering ball atop the One Times Square building drops 141 feet, signaling the start of the new year. While this tradition has been occurring annually for more than a century, the story of “time balls” is even older.

Time balls were invented by UK Royal Navy Captain Robert Wauchope and the first one was built at the Portsmouth Harbor in 1829. The second one, which still exists, is located at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich in 1833. They were originally used to aid maritime navigation by helping captains to ensure their marine chronometers kept accurate time. Marine chronometers, invented by John Harrison, was a type of clock used to measure the time of a fixed location, which was necessary to determine a ship’s longitude. Therefore, before setting sail, captains would synchronize their chronometers with a time ball set to drop at a specified time, usually one in the afternoon.

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Marine Chronometer. Source: (Wikipedia)

The time balls were originally placed near observatories to be assured of accurate time signaling based on the positions of the stars. However, the invention of the telegraph and rapid communication allowed them to be built in more remote locations and increased their accuracy. While these time balls were built for the purpose of maritime navigation rather than entertainment, it was not unusual for crowds to gather around them in the afternoon to watch the ball drop.