The year was 1904, the place was New York. The city was on the verge of tremendous changes and those changes were taking place right in Times Square: the opening of the city’s first subway line and the first-ever celebration of New Year’s Eve!

The inaugural celebration of New Year’s Eve on Times Square also commemorated the official opening of the new headquarters of The New York Times. Adolph Ochs, the newspaper’s owner, successfully lobbied the city to rename Longacre Square, the district surrounding his paper’s new home, in honor of his famous publication. Located on a small triangle of land at 7th Avenue, Broadway and 42nd Street, the Times Tower was the second-tallest building in Manhattan at the time. If measured from the bottom of its four sub-basements, which were built to handle the heavy weight of The Times’ “state-of-the-art” printing equipment, it would be the tallest building in Manhattan.

The building was the focal point of the unprecedented New Year’s Eve celebration. Ochs spared no expense for the massive party which included an all-day street festival and culminated in a spectacular fireworks display set off from the base of the tower. Over 200,000 people gathered in Times Square, and at midnight the cheers and sounds from noisemakers were said to be heard as far as thirty miles north along the Hudson River.

When the city banned the fireworks display two years later, Ochs arranged to have a large, illuminated seven-hundred pound iron and wood ball lowered from the tower flagpole at midnight to signify the end of 1907 and the beginning of 1908.

New Year’s Eve, 1939-1940.
AP Photo/John Lindsay

Times Square sign-maker Artkraft Strauss was responsible for the first ball-lowering and continued the tradition for almost a century. The ball was temporarily retired in 1942 and 1943 due to the war and the “dim-out” of lights in NYC. Crowds still gathered in Times Square, but the New Year was ushered in with a minute of silence, followed by chimes ringing out from sound trucks parked at the base of the tower.  

Today, New Year’s Eve in Times Square is an international phenomenon drawing hundreds of thousands of people gathering around the Tower, which is now called One Times Square. They wait in the cold, snow, or rain for hours to watch the ball-lowering ceremony. With satellite technology, a worldwide audience of over one billion watch each year. The lowering of the Ball has become the world’s symbolic welcome to the New Year.

The actual idea of a ball “dropping” to signal time dates back long before New Year’s Eve was ever celebrated in Times Square. In 1833, the first “time-ball” was installed on top of England’s Royal Observatory at Greenwich. At one o’clock each afternoon, the ball would drop. Captains of nearby ships would then precisely set their chronometers. After the success of the time-ball in Greenwich, about 150 others were set, but few survive and work. The United States Naval Observatory in Washington D.C. still has a working time-ball which descends from a flagpole at noon each day.

The New Year’s Eve ball has evolved from a 700 pound wood and iron ball to a Waterford Crystal ball for 2021, covered with a total of 2,688 triangles, is 12 feet in diameter and weighs 11,875 pounds. The design is The Gift of Happiness.

New Year’s Eve Ball Fact Sheet.

This year, the ball will still drop, but this will be the first year that the crowds won’t be gathered together on the streets due to COVID-19 restrictions. There will be virtual, visual and digital offerings complementing limited live entertainment. There will be an opportunity to participate in the festivities virtually. The owner of One Times Square, Jamestown, created a “virtual world of Times Square” with an app that will broadcast the events to allow people everywhere to experience Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Whether you want to turn your back on 2020 or turn to a New Year of hope, join the Times Square tradition of the New Year’s Eve ball drop.