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 on-board time keeping devices against the clock in the harbor. The ball, situated on a sturdy flag pole, 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 (installed in 1833) and the first US installation at the US Naval Observatory in 1845.
With the advent of radio time signals in the 1920s, time balls became obsolete. Hundreds were left to rust 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 New Yorker. 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. For four years he threw increasingly larger celebrations in the square but eventually wanted something bigger and more crowd-pleasing than simply setting off fireworks. He had the paper’s chief electrician Walter F. Palmer build him an electrically lit time ball, like the ones sailors referenced. The 700 pound wooden monster was covered in 100 25 watt light bulbs. It was first lowered on New Year’s Eve 1907. Since that first ball, the New Year’s Eve ball has dropped every year except for New Year’s Eve of 1942 (war time light restrictions forbade the illumination of the ball) and has been upgraded a total of 6 times.
The current ball is a technological marvel compared to the original. When the ball drops this New Year’s Eve, jubilant party goers will witness a brilliant display unimaginable in 1907. The current ball sports 2,288 hand cut Waterford Crystal triangles arranged in a geodesic pattern which are in turn bolted over an array of 672 LED modules, which in turn have a total of 48 Philips Luxeon Rebel LEDs, for a total of 32,256 individual LEDs. The entire computer-controlled array is capable of displaying 16 million colors and over a billion 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 via computer. Even if the performer failed to press the button the ball would, harking back to it’s origin as a time keeper, drop into place with clockwork accuracy.