The History of the New York City New Year’s Eve Ball Drop

People all around the world come together once a year to celebrate New Year’s Eve, but there might be no place that’s as popular with celebrators than Times Square in New York City. Every December 31, millions gather on the streets of the city to enjoy musical performances and count down to the start of the new year, all with the help of a giant metallic ball that drops from the sky. When you stop to think about it, the ball drop is a bit of an odd tradition. How did this practice begin, and how has it changed over the years?

The First Times Square Celebration and the First Ball Drop

Unsurprisingly, the giant ball we associate with New Year’s wasn’t present at the first official New York City celebration, which New York Times owner Adolph Ochs hosted in 1904. Ochs, who was inspired by time balls–which have their own history in sailing–he’d seen on a nearby building, commissioned the creation of the first ball, which was put on display in 1907. The ball, a product of the sign design firm Artkraft Strauss, was made of wood, metal, and light bulbs. It was five feet in diameter and weighed 700 pounds – much, much lighter than more recent versions of the ball.

Changes to the Ball Over the Years

There have been only a handful of designs of the New Year’s ball, which is a little surprising considering that the traditional has gone nearly uninterrupted for more than 100 years. While the ball has always consisted of a similar combination of metal and lights, its redesigns have reflected the cultural and technological changes of their time. For instance, the third ball, which was used from 1981 to 1995, was adorned with red lights to give it the appearance of an apple, as in NYC’s namesake, the Big Apple. The current ball, introduced in 2009, is 12 feet in diameter, weighs nearly 12 thousand pounds, and contains 32 thousand LED lamps. Talk about an improvement!

Years Without a Ball Drop

While the ball drop tradition has carried on steadily for the past century, there are a couple of notable exceptions. In 1942 and 1943, at the height of World War II, the city faced daily lighting restrictions. Although merrymakers still gathered in Times Square to mark the turn of the year, the events were a little more subdued. Rather than play music and set off fireworks at the stroke of midnight, celebration organizers instead held a minute of silence to honor those fighting in the war.

New York Isn’t the Only City to Drop the Ball

The New Year’s ball drop is iconic, so it’s not very surprising that places all around the country have similar traditions. However, while many cities hold similar ball drops for partygoers who want to celebrate in person, it isn’t always a ball that’s being dropped. Oftentimes, the city will instead drop an object that’s somehow related to that place’s history. For instance, Allentown, PA drops a liberty bell replica, symbolizing its history in restoring the bell during the American Revolution. Miami drops a big orange called “Mr. Neon.” And, oddly, the small town of Elmore, OH drops a sausage.

While there doesn’t seem to be much to the famous New York City ball drop, it has a long history and a lot of imitators. So, the next time you find yourself celebrating with loved ones and watching the celebration on television, you’ll know just how this tradition got its start.

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