A Brief History of Times Square’s New Year’s Eve Celebration
This New Year’s Eve, crowds will gather in Times Square to watch the iconic ball drop at midnight on December 31. The 11,875-pound sphere, decked out with 2688 crystal triangles, 32,256 lights, and its own Twitter account, is the centerpiece of a Times Square New Year’s Eve tradition that’s been going on for more than a century. But before the champagne starts flowing and the countdown kicks off to a proverbial clean slate, let’s take a look back at the history of this annual celebration.
When was Times Square built?
In 1904, construction was completed on a 25-story skyscraper on the triangle of land created by the intersections of 42nd Street, 43rd Street, 7th Avenue, and Broadway. It was to be the new headquarters of The New York Times. That same year, the city had plans to open the first set of underground subway lines with 28 different stations. Grand Central Station was also located on 42nd Street, and a number of stations followed Broadway’s route through the city. It was, supposedly, an attempt to avoid nominal confusion regarding the station at the base of the Times’s tower that first led to the suggestion that the city should change the name of the surrounding area from “Longacre Square” to “Times Square.”
Reports differ as to whether the idea to rename the relatively underutilized collection of intersections originally came from Adolph S. Ochs, the publisher of the Times from 1896 to 1935, or from August Belmont Jr., president of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company. Regardless of who first thought to apply the paper’s name from the building to the geography, in early April, the city's Board of Aldermen approved a resolution and, on April 8, 1904, the signature of Mayor George B. McClellan made it official. The next morning, a headline on page two of the Times read, “Times Square Is the Name of City’s New Centre.”
How did Times Square become a New Year's Eve destination?
As 1904 drew to a close, Ochs wanted to celebrate the paper’s impending move in January to their recently completed Times Tower, officially bearing the address of One Times Square. In prior years, the city had celebrated New Year’s Eve at Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan, where the ringing of bells marked the change in the calendar. But sparing no expense, Ochs officially launched a new tradition with an opulent celebration, to the delight of 200,000 attendees. Fanciulli’s Concert Band, a group of featured performers who played at the St. Louis World’s Fair earlier in the year, provided the soundtrack to the final moments of 1904. The Times touted its own publicity stunt the next morning in an article with a colorful headline that proclaimed: “BIG NEW YEAR FETE AT TIMES SQUARE: Mammoth Crowd Centres There for Celebration.”
“As the old year died and 1905 was born the news flared out from the tower of the Times Building to the north and to the south, in giant figures which took on all the colors of the rainbow and bore the tidings to thousands who waited and watched over many miles of territory,” the article read. The rainbow came in the form of fireworks that transformed the building into “a torch to usher in the new born, funeral pyre for the old.”
When did Times Square start dropping a ball on New Year’s Eve?
New York rang in the new year with fireworks as 1905 turned into 1906, and again as 1906 turned into 1907. But then, in 1907, the city banned the fireworks display for safety reasons, and Ochs had to find a different means to signify the city’s annual rebirth. In a January 1, 1908 article, the Times first described what would become the event’s signature tradition: “At ten minutes to midnight the whistles on every boiler in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and the waters thereof began to screech. Tens of thousands stood watching the electric ball and then—it fell.”
The new ceremony was chosen to mimic the ball drop at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, which has signaled 1 p.m. for Londoners and ship captains on the Thames since 1833. There, the object of focus is a simple bright red ball. But for Times Square, Ochs commissioned something a little more elaborate: a behemoth 700-pound wood-and-iron creation, five feet in diameter and illuminated by 100 25-watt bulbs. It was built by Russian immigrant Jacob Starr while he worked for Benjamin Strauss in a family-owned sign making company, Strauss Signs. Strauss and Starr later formed Artkraft Strauss, which produced the ball drop through 1996.
Has the Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration ever been postponed?
The ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve has been a remarkably consistent tradition since that first voyage on the precipice of 1908—with two notable exceptions. The New York Times noted the melancholy of the event’s first absence: “New Year’s Eve in Times Square had a weird quality last night … There was a note of sluggishness, an absence of real gayety. The restless thousands lacked zest. War somehow laid its hand on the celebration and tended to mute it. At midnight, the crowd watched in vain for the glowing white ball to slide down the flag staff atop the New York Times tower.”
That was the story on January 1, 1943, after a wartime dim-out on lights replaced the glowing orb and a respectful moment of silence hung heavy in place of cheers or jubilation. A similar story the following year noted another New Year’s Eve darkened by the war.
How has the New Year’s Eve ball been redesigned over the years?
The iconic symbol has seen several upgrades through the past century-plus. In 1920, an entirely wrought-iron version lopped 300 pounds off the original weight. Aluminum got the heft down to roughly 200 pounds in 1955. The same aluminum construction got a makeover in the early 1980s, when red lights and a green stem turned the classic orb into a Big Apple in accordance with the “I <3 NY” campaign. A short-lived white ball sat at the center of the ceremony from 1987 through 1998, during which time computer controls replaced manual labor. Waterford Crystal designed the Millennium Ball for the 2000 ceremony, which has undergone aesthetic adjustments each year since.
As for One Times Square, the original raison d'etre of the whole shebang? The New York Times outgrew the building in 1913, and these days, apart from a Walgreens on the first floor, the skyscraper is more valuable as a supportive structure for Times Square’s famous LED signs and billboards. But it remains the focus of the nation’s gaze every New Year’s Eve.
A version of this article was published in 2014; it has been updated for 2022.