The tradition dates back to December 31, 1907, though the balls have changed along with technology.
On New Year's Eve, a number of word class cities will harken in 2013 with giant fireworks displays. In New York City, a giant ball suspended above Times Square will slowly descend at midnight.
Until 1903, the largest New Year's Eve gathering of New Yorkers took place at Trinity Church on Wall Street and Broadway. The New York Times described the scene in 1897: "The crowds came from every section of the city, and among the thousands, who cheered or tooted tin horns, as the chimes were rung out on the night, were many from New Jersey, Long Island, and even Staten Island." Things were much the same for another half-dozen years. But as December 31, 1904 approached, many party-goers were persuaded to attend a different celebration far uptown.
Until that time, the area where 7th Avenue, Broadway and 42 Street met was called Long Acre Square. The Detroit Publishing Company sells a print showing what it looked like back in those days:
That narrow building rising all by itself, then the second tallest in New York City, is the just-finished headquarters of The New York Times newspaper. Its publisher, Adolph Ochs, had successfully lobbied city leaders to change Longacre Square's name to Times Square earlier that year. He then resolved to throw a New Year's Eve celebration that would be the talk of the town. "An all-day street festival culminated in a fireworks display set off from the base of the tower," according to an official history published by the Times Square District Management Association, "and at midnight the joyful sound of cheering, rattles and noisemakers from the over 200,000 attendees could be heard, it was said, from as far away as Croton-on-Hudson, thirty miles north."
An annual event was born -- but two years later, the city prohibited the fireworks display. "Ochs was undaunted," the official history continues. "He arranged to have a large, illuminated seven-hundred-pound iron and wood ball lowered from the tower flagpole precisely at midnight to signal the end of 1907 and the beginning of 1908." Thus the origin of today's celebration.
One Times Square has been home to a ball drop ever since, save in 1942 and 1943, when wartime light restrictions caused it to be canceled. The ball itself has changed with technology. The original ball of iron and wood was replaced in 1920 with a 400 pound orb of all iron. In 1955, an aluminum replacement weighed in at a considerably lighter 150 pounds, and was adorned with 180 light bulbs. The New York Times ran a photograph of that ball in 1978, (six years after Dick Clark starting broadcasting in Times Square). It's my favorite of any I've seen:
Though its bulbs were changed in the 1980s to make it look like an apple, that ball more or less survived until 1995, when it was "upgraded" with aluminum skin, rhinestones and computer controls. Are rhinestones ever an upgrade? Perhaps not. The new ball didn't last long. Did Y2K play any part in that first computerized ball's 1999 replacement? Despite some searching I couldn't find a definitive answer. In any case, a new ball of crystal dropped to mark the millennium.
In 2007, "modern LED technology replaced the light bulbs of the past for the 100th anniversary of the New Year's Eve ball." (pdf) And in 2008, today's gaudy orb debuted in its permanent location atop One Times Square (the Times sold the building way back in 1961). The current owner of the building is also the owner of the iconic ball, and can visit it on this roof:
Weighing 11,875 pounds, today's ball is technically a geodesic sphere with a 12 foot diameter, covered in 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles with various designs invisible to the spectators below.
The triangles are bolted to 672 LED modules, each of them containing red, blue, white, and green LEDs ("light-emitting diodes," if you'd started to wonder). Says an official fact sheet (pdf), "The Ball is capable of creating a palette of more than 16 million vibrant colors and billions of patterns producing a spectacular kaleidoscope effect atop One Times Square." Most experts put the maximum number of colors distinguishable by the human eye at 10 million. If an 11,875 pound crystal ball is displaying many millions of colors no one can see are they really there?
One wonders what material will form the next replacement ball. A perfectly spherical "Retina Display" sponsored by Apple? A hologram that obviates the need for a physical ball? A giant, genetically engineered peach conceived when the Williamsburg hipsters of today age into leadership positions and meld their ironic brand of throwback nostalgia with a Monsanto sponsorship?
That might look something like the artist Klew's rendering of James and friends atop the Empire State Building*:
Come what may, Dick Clark protege Ryan Seacrest will doubtless be there to update us. But am I alone in thinking that no orb, giant peach very much included, will ever be as spectacular as a modern analog of the fireworks display that NYC had until they were prohibited more than a century ago? As a point of comparison, here's what happened on a recent New Years Eve in Berlin:
Better, isn't it?
*Today's hipsters will compromise on Monsanto long before they'll party in Times Square.