NewsWorldA brief history of the traditional New Year's Eve...

A brief history of the traditional New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square

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(CNN) – On the last day of each year, it has become a ritual for large crowds to gather in the brightly lit chaos of New York’s Times Square to welcome new beginnings. At 11:59 p.m., a dazzling ball descends down a pole, while attendees – and millions of people tuning in from home – count down from 60.

At the stroke of midnight, the crowd erupts into a cacophony of sound, often luring your loved one in for a ceremonial kiss.

This year, although New Year’s Eve celebrations are shrinking due to the spread of the omicron variant, the Times Square ball will fall. However, organizers are encouraging people to tune in to watch it virtually, and in-person attendance will be limited to 15,000 (down from 60,000 before the pandemic).

Last year marked the first year since 1904 that crowds were banned from flocking to Times Square. Although the ball drop was canceled for two years during WWII, people kept coming to observe tradition and observe a minute of silence.

Over the past century, the symbol of the New Year, the glow ball, has evolved from an iron and wood cage adorned with light bulbs to a dazzling Technicolor glass object.

But how did this New Year’s Eve celebration begin, and why do we commemorate the occasion by watching a ball descend a pole?

Nautical inspiration

The Times Square dance started thanks to a Ukrainian immigrant and metallurgist named Jacob Starr and former New York Times editor Adolph Ochs. The latter had successfully drawn crowds to the newspaper’s new skyscraper in Times Square through pyrotechnics and fireworks to celebrate the coming year, but city officials banned the use of explosives after just a few years.

The Times Square Ball has had seven different designs. Credit: RW / MediaPunch / IPx / AP

In 1907, Ochs commissioned Starr, who worked for the sign firm Strauss Signs (later known as Artkraft Strauss, of which Starr served as president), to create a new visual display.

The new concept was based on time balls, nautical devices that had gained popularity in the 19th century. As timekeeping became more accurate, ship navigators needed a standardized way of setting their chronometers. Each day, ports and observatories raised and lowered a metal ball at the same time to allow sailors to synchronize their instruments.

Rules change for the New Year in Times Square 0:42

Both Ochs and New York Times chief electrician Walter Palmer have been credited with the idea, supposedly inspired by the Western Union building downtown, which threw a time ball every day at noon. But Starr’s granddaughter Tama, who joined Artkraft Strauss in 1982 and now owns the business, said in a phone interview that she believes it was her grandfather who came up with the concept of the ball being lowered and lit up by the numbers. New Years at midnight.

One design for the New Years ball was an aluminum cage fitted with light bulbs. Credit: David Handschuh / AP

“The idea was … to light it up with the new electricity that had just come into the neighborhood,” said Tama, who for many years served as a foreman at Times Square Ball Drop. “And it was lowered by hand … from one minute to midnight, and that’s how it was done for many years.”

“It was an adaptation of something old and useful,” he added. “It was instantly popular. People loved it.”

Although Manhattan had been partially lit by electricity since the early 1880s, the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) points out that half of American homes were still lit by gas lights and candles until the 1920s. The sight of a glowing ball descending from dark skies would have seemed otherworldly.

When the ball hit the parapet with a sign showing the year numbers, “the electrician flipped the switch, turned the ball off, and turned the numbers on at the same time,” Tama said. “So it looked like the ball going down became a set of numbers.”

All of Times Square got into the theater. In the first year, waiters at nearby restaurants and hotels wore battery-operated “1908” top hats that lit up at the stroke of midnight.

“It seemed magical to people,” Tama said.

‘One minute out of time’

Crowds gather in Times Square until December 31, 1938. The intersection has hosted New Year’s celebrations since 1904. Credit: – / AFP / Getty Images

There have been seven different Times Square balls since their first descent, from a 300-pound iron frame fitted with 25-watt bulbs, to a lighter aluminum frame after WWII, to a “Big Apple” during WWII. Former Mayor Ed Koch’s city administration.

In 1995, when the ball received a dazzling update with rhinestones, strobes, and computer controls, traditional sign makers were no longer needed, which meant that Artkraft Strauss, the company that had brought the ball to Times Square, it was not necessary either.

Today’s ball is a collaboration between Waterford Crystal and Philips Lighting, which uses 32,256 LEDs that can be programmed to display millions of colors and patterns on their surface.

Nonetheless, Tama fondly remembers her years on the roof of One Times Square. He took turns with his brother supervising and playing the timekeeper. When the last minute of the year rolled around, the workers lowered the ball using a complex system of pulleys.

Using a series of tape markers on the pole, Tama was responsible for telling them to speed up or slow down. With every ounce of his attention focused on the task, even the team’s breathing would sync up for the 60 seconds, he said.

In performing this ritual year after year, Tama sees an intrinsic link between the countdown, which she calls “a minute out of time,” and the realization of New Year’s resolutions.

“When you’re concentrating a lot, time seems to slow down,” he said. “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 can really change your life in a minute, you can decide to be different. You can choose to be kinder. and better”.

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