At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, a billion people will stop what they are doing in order to watch [Ryan Seacrest countdown as] a big ball slides down a pole. The Times Square device is a dazzling spectacle: an aluminum, geodesic skeleton covered in wedge-cut crystals and more than thirty-two thousand light-emitting diodes, which are capable of creating billions of kaleidoscopic color patterns. But despite its modern shell, the nearly twelve-thousand-pound ball is a nineteenth-century contraption.
Time balls originated in the early eighteen-hundreds, before there were time zones. Most American cities kept their own time, based on the sun. Knowing the exact time at sea was exceptionally difficult but was crucial to navigators, who used it to calculate their precise longitude. To determine the time, seafarers relied on a marine chronometer, an apparatus that resembled an oversized pocket watch, carefully gimballed in a wooden box to keep it level as rough seas rose and fell.
Unfortunately, chronometers varied in their “going-rate”—the speed at which they ran. If the instrument wasn’t periodically “rated”—recalibrated—the vessel risked being wrecked by unexpected shoals. “The deadly serious task of rating chronometers,” as the historian Alexis McCrossen has called it, forced crews to lug the delicate devices ashore and pay agents to maintain them.
In 1818, Captain Robert Wauchope, of the Royal Navy, had a better idea. Why not use a visual signal from a coastal naval observatory, coördinated by telegraph, that captains could see from their decks? The first ball drop took place in late 1829, in a dockyard at Portsmouth, England. Wauchope’s design used two balls, both five feet in diameter, set on a flagpole at the water’s edge. One was fixed at the top; the second was weighted and mobile. Minutes before noon, the second ball was raised up the flagpole until it met the stationary ball, so that no light passed between them. A flag was flown nearby, to warn observers of the imminent drop, which Wauchope estimated took a little less than half a second. At the moment captains saw light between the balls, they checked their chronometers against the official time.
A year later, Wauchope grandly claimed, “There will be no port of any consequence into which a ship can enter, where an accurate rate for the time-pieces on board may not be found.” He drummed up support from London’s ship captains, and shortly afterward, the Royal Observatory, in Greenwich, erected its own time ball. Soon many more appeared, at ports in the Cape of Good Hope, Jakarta, Valparaiso, and Madras. By 1845, there were a dozen or so time balls installed around the world.
But the technology was flawed. Calibrating a marine chronometer according to a time ball was tricky, because the chronometer was installed below deck, where the ball wasn’t visible. Time-ball operators complained of adverse weather conditions, poor visibility, and faulty signals. According to Scientific American, a time ball installed in 1845 atop the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.—likely an “air tight ball of Gumelastic Composition,” manufactured by Charles Goodyear—had to be “thrown down by hand.” Afterward, it would land on the observatory dome and roll onto the roof beneath. (Former President John Quincy Adams liked to stroll over to the observatory and watch it fall.) But in the words of McCrossen, the ball “was clearly almost useless to navigators, few of whom would have bothered to anchor so far inland along the Potomac.” By the eighteen-eighties, new commercial technologies—such as those of the Self-Winding Clock Company, in Brooklyn—eliminated the need for mariners to recalibrate chronometers, and therefore the need for public time signals.
On land, however, time balls found a new audience. In cities, people set their personal clocks to them. So, too, did city businesses that relied on having the precise time, such as banks, coach companies, clockmakers, and playhouses. We know that Lincoln was shot at 10:13 P.M. because a stage carpenter had synchronized the Ford’s Theatre clock that morning: “I fixed the clock in the vestibule by the ball today and it is right by that,” he said. Government officials considered the time ball an appropriate accent on municipal buildings. In 1884, someone even proposed erecting a time ball on top of the Washington Monument.
New balls popped up on both coasts, and even in landlocked cities like Kansas City, Missouri; Akron, Ohio; and Crete, Nebraska. Businesses put them in their shop windows or atop their corporate headquarters. Jewelry stores used them to demonstrate the reliability of their clocks and watches. In 1877, Western Union installed a time ball on its Manhattan headquarters, at Broadway and Dey Street. Its firing signal came from the Naval Observatory in Washington, via a dedicated telegraph line, which directed the ball to drop at noon New York time, or about 11:48 A.M. in D.C.
The New York ball had its detractors, among them Cleveland Abbe, who later became head of the U.S. Weather Bureau. In an 1881 Times article, he notes that there were a “number of large errors in the falling of this ball, sometimes amounting to five and six seconds.” New Yorkers loved it anyway. As Leonard Waldo, an astronomer at Yale, put it, “The time-balls in Boston, New York and Washington, have thoroughly ingratiated themselves in the public favor.”
After Adolph Ochs became the publisher of the Times, in 1896, he decided to move it to theformer site of the Pabst Hotel, at the intersection of Forty-second Street, Broadway, and Seventh Avenue. The Times’ new terra cotta and pink granite building was the second tallest in Manhattan. By 1904, Ochs had convinced Mayor George McClellan to rename the square after the paper. That same year, Ochs planned a New Year’s Eve party, promising fireworks at midnight, to lure New Yorkers away from the city’s traditional gathering, on Wall Street, where people listened to the bells of Trinity Church. It worked. Three years later, though, Ochs couldn’t get a permit for the fireworks. Instead, he installed a seven-hundred-pound sphere of iron and wood, covered it in a hundred twenty-five-watt light bulbs, and had it lowered from the flagpole at midnight.
The Times moved in 1913, but the Times Square ball drop continued, interrupted only by wartime blackouts in 1942 and 1943. Until 1995, the ball was lowered much as older time balls once were: by “six guys with ropes and a stopwatch.” Today, the drop is initiated by a laser-cooled atomic clock in Colorado, the primary time standard for the United States. It continues to be our most spectacular display of public time-keeping.
Phyllis Korkki, an assignment editor at The New York Times, visited the garment district in Manhattan to interview designers as part of a story for the newspaper’s Snapchat account. Credit George Etheredge/The New York Times What Could I Possibly Learn From A Mentor Half My Age? Plenty.
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