The Reason We Drop a Ball on New Year’s Eve

The tradition goes back more than a century—but who decided a ball had anything to do with the New Year?

It was New Year’s Eve in 1907 and there was a party in Times Square. Revelers poured into the streets from nearby theaters and hotels—some sporting top hats with the numbers”1908″ emblazoned on them in tiny light bulbs—and by 11:50 p.m., tens of thousands had made their way to the crossroads of Broadway and 42nd Street.

But aside from the record-breaking crowds, a new tradition would be born that night: a 700-pound ball of steel and wood, adorned with a hundred light bulbs and built by a young immigrant metalworker named Jacob Starr, would be dropped from the flagpole atop One Times Square. But wait—why a ball? And why Times Square?

The history of celebrating New Year’s Eve in Times Square began in 1905. (Before that, New Yorkers would gather around downtown’s Trinity Church as the bell tower “rang out the old, and rang in the new.”) The party was hosted by the New York Times, which had recently set up headquarters in the location, and for two years, the paper set off fireworks and made its building the epicenter of all things New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately, the city banned the fiery (and likely dangerous) display in 1907. Determined to find a new way to ring in the New Year, the paper’s owner, Adolph Ochs, arranged for the ball drop. Check out these other New Year’s traditions from around the world, too.

Ochs didn’t whip the idea out of thin air. He was inspired by the Western Union Telegraph’s time ball: a ball that was dropped from the top of the building at exactly noon each day. That ball was inspired by the time balls used by 19th-century mariners to calibrate their chronometers. Until 1907, no ball had been used to ring in the New Year.

Fortunately for Ochs, people loved the New Year’s Eve ball. “The great shout that went up drowned out the whistles for a minute,” wrote the paper the next morning. “The vocal power of the welcomers rose above even the horns and the cow bells and the rattles. Above all else came the wild human hullabaloo of noise.”

Since that first ball drop, the idea of dropping objects to count down the New Year has become synonymous with the holiday. Maine drops a maple leaf, Georgia drops a peach, and Idaho drops a giant potato. Before this year’s drop, read up on more fun facts you never knew about the holiday season.

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