It’s a tradition started in 1907/08 by the New York Times, and was inspired by time balls used by mariners for navigation.
Dropping a ball in Times Square at the stroke of midnight to celebrate the new year is a tradition that dates back to 1907.
The New York Times had begun the tradition of celebrating New Years Eve in Times Square in 1905 shortly after opening their headquarters there.
Hold on… I just realized that’s why it’s called Times Square. Duh. I’ve even been to the NYT building in Times Square and never made the connection. Duh!
…for two years, the paper set off fireworks and made its building the epicenter of all things New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately, the city banned the fiery (and likely dangerous) display in 1907. Determined to find a new way to ring in the New Year, the paper’s owner, Adolph Ochs, arranged for the ball drop.
A ball has been dropped every year since, except 1942 and 1943 when the city was under blackout restrictions during the war.
The original ball was 5 feet in diameter, 700 lb, and had one hundred 25 watt lightbulbs on it. The current ball is a 12ft in diameter, weighs nearly 12,000 lb and features over 32,000 LED lights – per NYE History & Times Square Ball | Times Square NYC.
Why a ball?
It seems like an odd tradition, but it has its roots in maritime tradition. “Time balls” were a device used on land to tell ships when a certain time (typically 1pm) had been reached.
The first time ball was installed in 1829 in southern England. Maritime vessels would use the drop of the ball to synchronize their on-board time-pieces. Keeping accurate time was crucial for navigation since a ship’s position based on astronomical observations.
One of the more famous time balls is the one still in operation today on top of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich England.
The advent of radio put an end to the widespread use of time balls as a way of communicating accurate time to mariners.