The History of the Technology Behind the New Year’s Ball Drop

Share with your network

The ball drop has become an iconic staple for New Year’s Eve celebrations worldwide. This is especially true in New York’s Times Square celebration. Despite the seemingly modern invention, the first iteration of the nearly twelve-thousand-pound ball was created back in the nineteenth century. Can you guess the surprising link between ship navigation and the New Year’s Ball Drop?

Time balls originated in the early eighteen-hundreds. Since this was before there were time zones in America, most cities kept track of their own time based on the sun. The lack of centralized time made it difficult to know the exact time while at sea, which made this knowledge a crucial job for navigators to figure out. In 1818, Captain Robert Wauchope of the Royal Navy decided that it would be a good idea to create a visual signal from a coastal naval observatory that captains could see from their decks. This signal would allow them to keep track of time. In 1833, England’s Royal Observatory started the tradition of dropping a lighted ball to signal the exact time. When captains saw light from the ball, they checked their chronometers against the official time. The ball dropped at 1 pm every afternoon, which allowed the captains of nearby ships to precisely set their instrumentation. By 1845, there were a dozen or so time balls installed around the world.

On land, however, it took longer for this tradition to be adopted. The first New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square did not occur until 1907, even though the first Times Square New Year’s Celebration took place in 1904. The first ball drop used a flagpole on the Times Building. This time ball was made by an immigrant metalworker named Jacob Starr, and it was made of iron, wood, and 100 25-watt light bulbs. It was 5 feet in diameter and weighed around 700 pounds.

Since the first drop in 1907, the New Year’s Eve Time Square ball drop has become a tradition. The Times moved in 1913, but the Times Square ball drop continued on. The only years it did not drop were 1942 and 1943, due to the complications with World War II. Up until 1995, the ball was lowered using similar manual pulling and stopwatch methods of the older time balls. Today, however, the drop is initiated by a laser-cooled atomic clock in Colorado. This is the primary time standard for the United States.

The Times Square ball drop is a popular tradition, and there are new patented inventions related to the ball drop that has arisen to change and improve this tradition. One example of this is the synchronized confetti sprayer and descending illuminated ball (US6260989B1).

This device is a synchronized confetti sprayer and descending illuminated ball with a digital display that counts down the seconds until the ball descends to the bottom. Once the ball descends, the confetti sprayer, noisemaker, and flashing lights are activated in celebration.

The New Year’s time ball as we know it today has been inspired by a variety of different patented inventions:

  • The New Year’s ball drop illuminating device patent [US2005138851]
  • The disco light ball, which preceded the time balls [US4389598]
  • The synchronized confetti sprayer and descending illuminated ball [US6260989]
  • The laser light show device with holographic image projection [US5090789]

The technology and purpose behind the New Year’s Eve ball drop has changed a lot over the years, and inventors will continue to make improvements to the ball drop as technology continues to advance.