Times Square, New Year's Eve in

Times Square, New Year's Eve in

Many Americans spend the exact moment of midnight on New Year's Eve watching a highly illuminated ball slide down a pole perched atop a tall building facing New York City's Times Square. How did this event, broadcast on television throughout the United States and around the world, come to symbolize New Year's Eve for so many people?

History

In 1896 a businessman named Adolph Ochs bought a nearly defunct New York newspaper and began to restore it to health. After a number of years, he decided to construct a new building to house this paper, the New York Times. The property he purchased lay along 42nd Street, facing Longacre Square. At eighteen stories high, the completed Times building was among the taller buildings in turn-of-the-century Manhattan. The owners of other tall buildings had celebrated their openings with fireworks so Ochs decided to follow suit. Ochs scheduled his celebration for New Year's Eve 1904. The event not only marked the opening of the building, but also the changing of the square's name from Longacre to Times Square. In those days, many New Yorkers gathered at Wall Street's Trinity Church to usher in the new year. Ochs's fireworks lured people away from the church's midnight bell ringing.

The success of Ochs's event, and the publicity it garnered for the NewYork Times, enticed Ochs to repeat the stunt in the years that followed. In 1907 the city of New York decreed rooftop fireworks a fire hazard. So Ochs cooked up another eye-catcher to call attention to his building (and his newspaper). An iron and wood ball weighing over 600 pounds was attached to the top of a pole standing on the roof of the building. The one hundred 25-watt light bulbs embedded in the ball glowed dimly in the dark. At the stroke of midnight the ball was released and slid down the pole, signaling the start of the new year.

Ochs may well have patterned this spectacle after a long forgotten daily occurrence. In those days, Washington D.C.'s Naval Observatory telegraphed the New York City Western Union building (later the site of the World Trade Center) each day precisely at noon. A flanged metal ball at the summit of a pole perched atop the building was released upon the arrival of this signal. This highly visible event helped people to set their watches accurately.

With the exception of the years 1942 and 1943, the ball-dropping ceremony has continued to this day. In those years, wartime blackout restrictions prevented the illumination of the ball. Those who gathered in Times Square instead observed a minute of silence followed by the recorded sound of ringing bells. The first radio broadcast of the Times Square festivities took place in 1929. The first television broadcast occurred in 1943. These broadcasts helped to turn a local New York event into a nationwide celebration (see also "Auld Lang Syne").

The Ceremony Today

The ball still drops from the rooftop of the same building, though the paper is no longer headquartered there and its name has been changed from the New York Times Building to One Times Square. The owners of this building possess the current New Year's Eve ball, while a consortium of local business owners, known as the Times Square Business Improvement District, and an organization called Countdown Entertainment, produce the event itself.

Event organizers suggest that those who wish to witness the balldropping ceremony in person arrive at Times Square as early as possible. The best areas from which to see the ball drop often fill up during the afternoon hours of December 31. The police begin blocking off streets to vehicles at 6:00 p.m. or earlier, depending on when the streets begin to fill up. The event has drawn about half a million people to the Times Square area in recent years.

Today's event boasts considerably more razzle-dazzle than Ochs's original entertainments. At 6:00 p.m. workers hoist the ball to the top of a 77-foot pole and flip the switch that lights it up. The ball used today, a geodesic sphere made from aluminum and plastic, weighs 1,070 pounds and measures 6 feet in diameter. It is covered with 504 crystal triangles that reflect and refract the light from hundreds of bulbs. Four hundred thirty-two light bulbs - clear, colored, and strobe - blaze from the interior of the sphere, while 168 halogen bulbs sparkle on the exterior. Rotating mirrors affixed to the surface of the ball reflect the ball's glow into the crowd. Loudspeakers provide continual musical entertainment from 10:30 p.m. until 11:59 p.m., when the ball begins its 60-second descent.

The 2001 New Year's Eve festivities featured some special additions made to honor the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The New Year's Eve ball was fitted with special crystal triangles dedicated to the memory of all those who died in the attacks. Event organizers also created an evening bell-ringing ceremony. All over the city, church bells rang at 6:00 p.m. in memory of the victims. Individuals and places of worship as well as other institutions were also asked to participate by ringing bells.

Further Reading

Pool, Daniel. Christmas in New York. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997.

Web Site

The Times Square Business Improvement District maintains a web page on its New Year's Eve festivities at:
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003