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It’s an homage to a bygone era.

Meghan Overdeep
December 28, 2017

At first blush, the tradition of marking each new year by dropping a giant sparkly ball in the middle of New York City’s Times Square seems just a bit arbitrary. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Time balls, it turns out, are an important part of human history dating back to the early 1800s.

According to Time, the first “time balls” were built in England’s Portsmouth harbor in 1829 by carpenter and clockmaker John Harrison. These soaring contraptions were large enough and high enough to be seen from the harbor or port, and were designed to help ship captains keep accurate time. At sea, without landmarks to determine longitude and stable surfaces to rest a pendulum, it was hard to tell time precisely. Ship captains would look to these time balls to set their chronometers.

Though they were designed to aid sailors, time balls soon became popular attractions among landlubbers as well. Crowds would gather to watch the ball drop at noon, and used the towering instruments to set their own clocks at home.

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In 1845, the first U.S. time ball was erected atop the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. Time reports that between 1845 and around 1902, time balls were erected across the country in locations like San Francisco’s Telegraph Hall and the Boston State House.

Although incredible to behold, time balls were constantly malfunctioning, and they were on their way out by the turn of the 19th century. But that all changed when a 1907 fireworks ban forced the New York Times to find a new way to ring in the new year during its annual New Year’s jamboree. Drawing inspiration from the Western Union Telegraph’s time ball, Times owner Adolph Ochs, arranged for an glowing 700-pound iron and wood ball to be lowered from the flagpole of the Times Tower. The crowds reportedly roared as the ball inched towards its resting place.

And the rest, as they say, is history.