The Start of New York’s Biggest Party: The History of the Times Square New Year's Eve Ball Drop
The New York New Year's Eve tradition of the Ball drop, which goes back more than a century, was conceived by an immigrant tycoon who wanted to celebrate his accomplishments and the city itself.
New York City during the winter holidays is an exceptional place to be. The magic of the holidays comes to a head at the “Crossroads of the World” on New Year’s Eve for the world’s biggest party as thousands gather in Times Square to watch the famous ball drop and ring in a new year.
The tradition, which goes back more than a century, was conceived by an immigrant tycoon who in 1904 wanted to celebrate his accomplishments but also New York itself.
The first New Year's Eve celebration in New York had no massive sphere filled with lights dropping down from a column to announce the new year at the stroke of midnight. Rather, it was just a party in the streets.
German Jewish immigrant Adolph Ochs had just successfully lobbied to have Longacre Square renamed Times Square after the newspaper he owned, The New York Times, moved to the area on 42nd and Broadway. They had moved into a state-of-the-art building and Manhattan’s second tallest skyscraper.
Ochs had much to celebrate but so too did New York City, as the first subway system known as the Interborough Rapid Transit Company or the Rapid Transit Commission, had just become active, according to Times Square’s official website.
And so, Ochs figured a party for everyone in the streets would be the way to celebrate the changing landscape of New York City. He reportedly spared no expense for the party, which started during the day and featured a street festival and a massive fireworks display at midnight, according to Times Square’s official website.
The New York Times' description of the occasion paints a rapturous picture: "From base to dome the giant structure was alight - a torch to usher in the newborn year.”
The new year—1905—was brought in with a bang as 20,000 people from all over the tri-state area packed the newly minted Times Square. Word of mouth from those who attended went on to make Times Square the “it” place to kiss the previous year goodbye and welcome the incoming one.
However, the city was not amused. Due to the amount of fireworks that Ochs brought in, the city banned the twilight illuminations in the air. But Ochs wasn’t fazed, as he thought of something bigger and better: the Times Square Ball.
The first New Year’s Eve Ball was built by a young immigrant metalworker named Jacob Starr, and for most of the twentieth century the sign company he founded, Artkraft Strauss, was responsible for lowering the Ball, according to the official Times Square Ball’s website.
The five-foot-diameter ball was made of iron and wood and weighed about 700 pounds and featured 100 25-watt light bulbs.
"The idea was to ... have it illuminated with the brand-new electricity that had just come up to the neighborhood," Tama Starr, Jacob’s Starr’s granddaughter, who for many years served as foreperson at the Times Square ball drop, told CNN. "And it was lowered by hand ... starting at one minute to midnight, and that was the way it was done for many years.
"It was an adaptation of an old, useful thing," she added. "It was instantly popular. People just loved it."
Once the ball was lowered on the light up sign that was erected at the base, which read “1908,” a new way to celebrate the new year was officially established.
The ball dropped without incident every year except 1942 and 1943, when the ceremony was suspended due to World War II’s “dim-out” of lights in New York City, the official Times Square Ball’s website said. During those two years, crowds still gathered in Times Square and welcomed the New Year with a minute of silence followed by the ringing of chimes from sound trucks parked at the base of the tower where the ball would drop.
From 1907 until 1920, the ball remain unchanged.
In 1920, the first ball alteration came when a 400-pound sphere made entirely of wrought iron was introduced.
Thirty-five years later, in 1955, the wrought iron ball was replaced with an aluminum sphere that weighed just 150 pounds.
The aluminum ball was used until it got a makeover in 1980s as the city desperately needed tourists, commerce and interest as it struggled through massive crime, debt and a slump. So the ball was adorned with a green stem and featured red lights to look like an apple for the Big Apple’s “I Love New York” marketing campaign. This apple falling from the sky to introduce a new year lasted from 1981 to 1988.
A regular white ball was brought back by the end of the decade.
In 1995, the Time Square Ball was upgraded with aluminum skin, rhinestones, strobes and computer controls, but the aluminum Ball was lowered for the last time in 1998. As the 20th century closed, a new Ball was needed for a new millennium.
For the ball dropping to usher in the 21st Century, a redesigned sphere by Waterford Crystal and Philips Lighting was introduced.
While security and crowd control was always a concern for safety, following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the NYPD stepped up patrol to ensure that Times Square on New Year's Eve would be one of the safest places in the world.
“I never think about it, [the] NYPD is so good. They're the best in the world and I think they have it covered as they do every year,” Ryan Seacrest told Inside Edition in 2018 about security in Times Square during New Year's Eve.
"I feel safest in Times Square on New Year’s Eve than anywhere else,” Seacrest's co-host that year, Jenny McCarthy, said.
Seven years later, for the Ball dropping’s centennial, an LED sphere was brought in by Waterford Crystal and Philips Lighting and has been used ever since. As the ball drops to usher in the new year, it changes color.
“Nothing stops us and nothing stops the millions of people who come out to watch this in person as well,” Ryan Seacrest told Inside Edition in 2018.
He explained how he was blown away by how many people turn out to celebrate the big occasion every year when he comes to host the ball dropping.
"These are people who, in their real lives, have no lack of commitment because they commit for 12 hours to be in the same spot,” he said.
While the Times Square Ball has become synonymous with New Year’s Eve, each year it drops it creates a special magic that only the City that Never Sleeps can project. And as the world has changed in the 115 years since the ball began dropping, it still serves as a symbol of a brighter future.
"When you're concentrating really hard, time seems to slow down," Tama Starr told CNN of the ball dropping. "It felt like the longest minute in the world. It felt like you had time to wash your hair, call your mother, change your life. You really can change your life in one minute—you can decide to be different. You can decide to be kinder and better."
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