Friday, December 31, 2010

The Origin of Time Square New Year Ball Drop

The roar of the crowd counts down to the very moment 2010 becomes 2011, as the giant crystal covered ball begins to drop.
10,9,8, 7 flashes above, and the ball slides gently down the pole. Every second the ball moves lower and lower until it is 2011. A New Year. A New Decade filled with hopes and dreams.

Thinking about the ball dropping, it seems quite odd that dropping ball should mark such a momentous occasion. I know the ball has been dropping since 1907, when a 700 pound, 5 feet diameter New Year's Eve Ball crafted from iron and wood by immigrant metalworker named Jacob Starr, and glowing with one hundred 25-watt light bulbs, made its descent. But why a ball? After all, other big cities mark the entrance to the New Year with fantastical displays of fireworks and light shows. In Paris sparks fly from the Eiffel Tower in a dizzying shower of fireworks. In London fireworks surround Big Ben, which makes sense since Big Ben sounds the passage of time, and bongs in the New Year. In Australia multi-colored star bursts and gigantic sparklers light up Sydney Harbor.

The ball dropping in New York City is a tradition, which is fused to the very foundation in which man began to precisely track the time. The Chronometer, (not to be confused with today's chronometer which is a COSC certification - click here to learn more) was a vital instrument used by seamen to determine their longitude at sea by the precise tracking of time.

To know ones Longitude at sea, one must know the time at home port and at the same time knowing the time on ship. Once the time difference is known, the difference by degrees is known and thus the crucial longitude. The world spins on it axis 360 degrees in a 24 hour period thus in one hour it turns 15 degrees. If the navigator resets his ship's clock local at high noon, and refers to his clock representing time at the home port, every hour difference translates to 15 degrees from the home port. A precise watch was required to know the ships course and save it from potential destruction. On October 22, 1707, four British Men 'O War sank just off the Cornish Coast. 2000 men were lost. In 1714, The British Parliament , aggravated by this obviously needless catastrophe, passed the Longitude Act: A huge sum of money would be awarded to anyone who could invent a way to determine the precise longitude of a ship's location to within less than one degree.

Click here to learn more about John Harrison and his quest for precision

By the 1800's, the chronometer was an essential sea vessel navigational instrument. To ensure the chronometer kept perfect time, a "time-ball", the first of many, was installed on top of England's Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1833. The ball would drop at one o'clock every afternoon, enabling captains of nearby ships to precisely set their chronometers (a vital navigational instrument). The "time-ball" was an instant success and an additional 150 public "time-balls" were installed around the world. In fact, a "time-ball" is still dropped at United States Naval Observatory in Washington, DC, where, since 1845, a time-ball drops from a flagpole at noon each day.
Tonight 10 seconds before the stroke of midnight, 400 feet above Times Square , New York's "time ball" weighing 11,875 pounds and glittering with 288 new "Let There Be Love" Waterford Crystal triangles and 1,152 "Let There Be Joy" triangles, and the original 960 "Let There Be Light" crystals will slowly descend down the pole, marking the entrance of 2011.

Happy New Year!
R. Van Halem