Who Invented the Time Ball, Predecessor of the New Year’s Eve Ball?

Answer: Robert Wauchope

Although we’ve come to strongly associate time balls and “the ball drop” with New Year’s Eve revelry, the origins of the time ball are quite distant from the modern Times Square ball drop ritual.

In 1829, Robert Wauchope, a captain in the Royal Navy, erected the first time ball. He invented the device so that sailors, out in the harbor at Portsmouth, England, could calibrate their onboard timekeeping devices against the clock in the harbor. The ball, situated on a sturdy flagpole, would drop every day at 1 p.m. (as the use of time balls spread, British stations would continue to drop the ball at 1 p.m. and American stations would drop the ball at noon). Other notable time balls include the one at Greenwich Observatory, London (installed in 1833) and the first U.S. installation at the U.S. Naval Observatory, Washington, D.C. in 1845.

With the advent of radio time signals in the 1920s, time balls became obsolete. Hundreds were left to rust or rot and many were outright demolished. Today, there are over 60 time ball structures still standing, although many are no longer operational.

Time balls would have faded entirely into historical obscurity if not for one enterprising man. Over a century ago, in 1904, the owner of the New York Times, Adolph Ochs, celebrated the opening of The New York Times’ new office at One Times Square (he had persuaded the city to rename Longacre Square to Times Square in honor of the newspaper) with a massive fireworks display on New Year’s Eve. For the next two years, he threw increasingly larger celebrations in the square, but eventually needed something bigger and more crowd-pleasing after the city implemented a fireworks ban in 1907. The newspaper’s chief electrician, Walter F. Palmer, suggested using a time ball after seeing one used on the nearby Western Union Building. Ochs hired sign designer Artkraft Strauss to construct the 700-pound wood and iron monster, which was covered in 100 25-watt incandescent light bulbs and was first used on New Year’s Eve in 1907. Since that first ball, the New Year’s Eve ball has dropped every year except for New Year’s Eve of 1942 and 1943 (wartime light restrictions forbade the illumination of the ball) and has been upgraded multiple times over the years.

The current ball is a technological marvel compared to the original. When the ball drops this New Year’s Eve, jubilant partygoers will witness a brilliant display unimaginable in 1907. The current ball sports 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles arranged in a geodesic pattern, which are in turn bolted over an array of 672 LED modules, each of which has 48 Philips Luxeon Rebel LEDs in them, for a grand total of 32,256 individual LEDs. The entire computer-controlled array is capable of displaying over 16 million colors and billions of unique patterns. In addition to computer-controlled lighting, the entire drop process itself is computer controlled. Although it is customary for an honored guest to press a large button on the main performance stage in Times Square to lower the ball, the entire process is actually linked to an atomic clock in Colorado via computer. Even if the performer failed to press the button, the ball would, harking back to its origin as a timekeeper, drop into place with clockwork accuracy.

Image Public Domain.

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