The world is full of peculiar New Year's eve traditions - eating 12 grapes in Spain, serving suckling pig in Austria, burning effigies in Hungary - but why, since December 31, 1907, has New York City celebrated by dropping a giant ball from the top of a building in Times Square?
It began with New York Times publisher Alfred Ochs's decision to celebrate the opening of his newspaper's new headquarters (then the second tallest tower in the city) in previously named Longacre Square with a grandiose New Year's Eve celebration. "'An all-day street festival culminated in a fireworks display set off from the base of the tower,' according to an official history published by the Times Square District Management Association....An annual event was born -- but two years later, the city prohibited the fireworks display," notes Friedersdorf.
"'Ochs was undaunted,' the official history continues. 'He arranged to have a large, illuminated seven-hundred-pound iron and wood ball lowered from the tower flagpole precisely at midnight to signal the end of 1907 and the beginning of 1908.' Thus the origin of today's celebration."
"One Times Square has been home to a ball drop ever since, save in 1942 and 1943, when wartime light restrictions caused it to be canceled," adds Friedersdorf. "The ball itself has changed with technology. The original ball of iron and wood was replaced in 1920 with a 400 pound orb of all iron. In 1955, an aluminum replacement weighed in at a considerably lighter 150 pounds, and was adorned with 180 light bulbs....And in 2008, today's gaudy orb debuted in its permanent location atop One Times Square (the Times sold the building way back in 1961)."