After only a modest night on the town to celebrate the New Year, I ended up home on the couch sharing in the countdown to midnight with millions of people across the country as ‘the ball dropped’ over Times Square in New York City. With the holiday being a highly social one, renowned for debauchery – like many cultural events in the US – the root of this big party’s meaning has been long lost.
While all the music, life performances, and Hollywood stars do put on quite the spectacle, I found myself struggling with why I was watching a giant bright colored ball fall down a pole and not understanding if this meant anything in particular.
As it happens, the ball drop phenomenom has its roots in maritime culture – yet another example of how our civilization has deeply rooted ties with the sea.
The ‘ball’ is a highly modernized variant of what would historically be known as a ‘time ball‘. Time balls were invented by Royal Navy Captain Robert Wauchope in 1829. The first time ball was used near coastal Portsmouth, England. The use of the time ball quickly spread throughout the UK, and the world during the mid-1800’s as an aid to time keeping and navigation.
Time balls were typically raised rather than dropped – daily at 1pm. The ball would be raised half-way at 5 minutes to 1PM, then the remainder of the way at 1PM. This signal allowed mariners to calibrate their navigation instrumentation before heading to sea. Time ball stations calibrated the timing of the drop with celestial timekeeping, as mariners would do the same while out to sea. Radio technology made the use of time balls obsolete in the early 1900’s.Time ball stations set their clocks according to transit observations of the positions of the sun and stars.
The ball drop event at Times Square started in 1907. The first ball was constructed of metal and wood and was illuminated with 100 hundred 25-watt light bulbs. My research points the origins of this first ball being constructed by a metalworker named Jacob Starr or an electrician named Walter Palmer. In either case, it was publisher Adolph Ochs who set out to create a New Year’s Eve midnight event to attract people to Times Square. In the early years, the ball dropped just after midnight, while today it drops during the final minute of the current year as a countdown to the new year.
With the start of this new year underway, I encourage all to take a unique and fresh perspective on all areas of life. Perhaps the Times Square ball drop will help us to navigate a new course for the future.