In 1907, the city of New York banned the use of fireworks in Times Square. This was particularly disappointing to New York Times owner Adolph Ochs, who for three years had been responsible for one of the city’s biggest parties celebrating the end of one year and the beginning of the next.
When the Times moved into its new, impressively tall, office building in Longacre Square in 1904 and then successfully lobbied the city to rename the square in its honor, Ochs was in the mood to celebrate. He decided New Year’s Eve was a good time to do it and set about designing a terribly chilly street fair that culminated in a firework display and a swell of noisemakers and cheers at the stroke of midnight.
The party was a success, attracting more than 200,000 crazy people who didn’t mind freezing their toes off, and became a highly anticipated annual event in the city. So, when New York said no to the fireworks, Ochs wasn’t ready to give up. Instead, he got creative and reached back into history for a new tradition.
What he found, with the help of his chief electrician Walter Palmer, was a time-ball that had been installed in 1833 on top of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. The time-ball dropped at precisely one o’clock every afternoon and served as a tool by which ship captains could set their chronometers.
Adolph Ochs decided that what his party needed was a fancy time-ball to mark the precise beginning of the new year so that everyone could count down the last seconds and share the first kiss of the new year with someone special, or with whomever happened to be handy.
He recruited electrician and metalworker Jacob Starr and his company Artkraft Strauss to design a ball made of wood and iron and lighted by one hundred incandescent light bulbs. At only five feet in diameter, this ball weighed a mere seven hundred pounds and was hoisted on a seventy-foot flag pole by a thick rope and six men.
The Times outgrew its office space by 1914 and had to make another move, but the newfangled old and kind of weird ball drop tradition in Times Square has continued every year (except two) since that first one in 1907. The ball’s diameter has expanded over the years. It’s gotten a whole lot more Waterford crystal-y and more than five tons heavier. But it has become the world’s most widely recognized symbol for the beginning of a new year.
The only times the ball didn’t drop were 1942 and 1943 when wartime dimouts prohibited the display. But that didn’t stop New Yorkers, and probably quite a few very cold visitors to New York, from gathering and celebrating with a moment of shivery silence followed by the ringing of chimes.
Because when it’s important, the celebration goes on, even when it looks a little different. Sometimes people just discover that quieter celebrations will serve and other times strange and beautiful new traditions are born.
Much of the world, including New York City, is facing a lot of restrictions and challenges coming into the celebration today of the end of a year that has turned out to be pretty difficult to navigate and the beginning of a new year that we sure are hoping might turn out to be a little bit easier.
I imagine most of us will be engaging in somewhat subdued celebrations, maybe at home warm in our pajamas watching a broadcast of the ball in a much emptier Times Square than we’re used to seeing. There will be no public present. It’ll only be the press, a few performers, and some of New York’s first responder families specially invited and socially distanced from one another. There will be no kissing of just any old handy person, and also everyone will probably be even colder than they would be if they were pressed together with a large crowd.
Personally, I like being warm, and I’m not overly fond of crowds anyway so I’m happy this year, like every previous one of my life, not to attend the year’s biggest party in person. But I’m also happy that New York, which has been dropping the ball for a long time, is finding a way to make it work. I’ll probably be watching from my living room where I’ll join in the countdown to the end of 2020 and share my first kiss of 2021 with someone special.