New Year’s Eve brings thousands of revelers to Times Square, all for the sole purpose of watching a glittering ball drop. And it doesn’t even really drop – it slowly and decorously descends.
In 2007, I was one of those revelers. Well, not really, since I didn’t stand outside for hours to stake out some prime real estate. I would have had a better, and warmer, view had I watched from home. But I wanted to see for myself what the hoopla was about… after all, it’s been happening since 1907 (excluding 1942 and 1943, due to the World War II “dimout” of lights in New York City). There must be something to it, or so one would assume.
Having experienced it for myself, I still don’t understand. Maybe it’s because I didn’t arrive hours earlier – a fact for which I was retrospectively grateful when I accidentally found myself trapped in Times Square on the afternoon of December 31, when all I wanted to do was reach the subway – but it felt no more festive than watching the ball drop on a screen while in a warm environment. Besides, then I’d actually have seen the ball, because as it was… I’m not so sure I did.
Since I still didn’t understand why so many people seem to think this is a big deal, I decided to do a bit of research on the topic. (That’s what librarians do, isn’t it?) I did learn that the concept of “time balls” dates back to 1833, and its initial purpose was to allow ship captains to set their chronometers. There aren’t many functional time balls of this nature in the world anymore – their purpose is rather obsolete, after all – but there are some that exist merely to carry on the tradition. For example, the one at the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, DC, which daily descends a flagpole at noon.
I’m going to guess that those functional time balls more closely resembled the original Times Square New Year’s Eve ball, which was five feet in diameter and weighed a mere 700 pounds. Today, it is a relative behemoth at twelve feet in diameter, weighing in at 11,875 pounds.
All of this made for a very interesting history lesson, but I still think I’ll leave Times Square to others on future New Year’s Eves. Once was more than enough for me!
Contributed by: Leiba Rimler, Librarian, Technical Services