The History of the NYE Ball Drop

ADOLPH OCHS HAD A LOT to celebrate as the year of 1903 came to a close.

The New York Times, his newspaper, was moving to a new building near Longacre Square, at the corner of 42nd Street and 7th Avenue and Broadway. At that time, it would be the second-largest building in New York City.

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To mark the occasion, Ochs wanted to throw a party that would culminate with fireworks at midnight, set off in a grand display over his new pink granite edifice. More than 200,000 of his fellow New Yorkers turned out to join him.

By the end of 1904, Ochs had succeeded in getting the nearby square renamed after his paper and The New York Times was the leading publication in the city, which was more than enough reason to throw another New Year’s Eve party. Prior to then, New Yorkers celebrated the evening of Dec 31 with bell-ringing and singing in Manhattan’s Trinity Church down on Wall Street. But that year, Ochs’ party became the place to be for tens of thousands of upper-crust New Yorkers who could afford the luxury of lobster and other fine dining. Other, similar celebrations were presented by Ochs for another two years, but toward the end of 1907, he was denied a permit for fireworks.

Undaunted and perhaps reminded of a time-contraption first used in the early 1800s in England, Ochs hired metalworker Jacob Starr and electrician Walter Palmer to create a 700-pound, 5-foot-diameter iron and wood ball that Ochs planned to drop from the Times building flagpole to mark the beginning of 1908. Covered in 100 25-watt light bulbs, that first ball was lowered by six men with ropes just after midnight.

For 108 years—with the exception of 1942 and 1943, when the ceremony was suspended due to wartime “dimouts” of lights in the city—the ball has dropped in Times Square beginning just before midnight and often accompanied by “Auld Lang Syne” and other beloved and meaningful songs. Live broadcasts of the drop began on NBC in the 1940s, and the ball itself has undergone several changes.

In 1920, the iconic ball was replaced with one that was lighter (400 pounds) and made of wrought iron and light bulbs. That one was replaced with a 150-pound aluminum ball in 1955, one that continued to be used until 1981 when red lights and a green stem (for the Big Apple) were added. In 1988, the white ball came back. It sported patriotic colors during Operation Desert Shield, received rhinestones and became computerized in 1995 and included engravings at the beginning of 2002 to honor those affected by the attacks on Sept 11, 2001.

Today’s New Year’s Eve ball, watched on Dec. 31 by some 1 billion people as it takes its minute-long journey to the bottom, weighs almost six tons and is more than twice the size of the original. The geodesic sphere sports 2,688 Waterford Crystals and more than 32,000 LED lights and, when it’s not New Year’s Eve, sits as an almost-year-round attraction where it all began: at the top of One Times Square.