Thursday, December 31, 2015

Naval Observatories, Time Balls and Telegraphs - a History of New Year's Eve Ball Drops



 Happy New Year!!!!

Naval Observatories, Time Balls and Telegraphs - a History of New Year's Eve Ball Drops

In American pop-culture, no New Year’s Eve is complete without the New Year’s Eve Ball drop at One Time’s Square in New York City; an annual tradition (with the exception of two black-out years during World War II) since New Year's Eve 1907.[i] But it was not the first.

The Evening World (New York), January 2, 1909, page 8.

Residents of Washington DC watched the first electrically illuminated, New Year's Eve “time ball” drop on the old State, Army and Navy Building (now the Old Executive Office Building) on New Year's Eve of 1902, to ring in 1903.


Residents of Washington were apprised of the exact instant of midnight by the falling of the time ball on the east pavilion of the State, War and navy building.  The ball was hoisted about five minutes before 12 o'clock, and the beam of an electric searchlight on the east side of the building was projected upon the ball so that its fall could be observed throughout the city.

The Evening Star (Washington DC), January 1, 1903, page 8.

“Time balls,” themselves, however, were not new in 1903; they were more than seven decades old. But traditionally, they were dropped at noon (1:00 p.m. in Britain), every day, as a visual means of synchronizing clocks on naval vessels.  Accurate time-keeping was a crucial component of safe navigation.  The Royal Navy had been using “time balls” since 1829, and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich had been dropping them daily since 1833.[ii]

The Washington Times, August 23, 1903, page 21.

In the United States, the Naval Observatory[iii] had been dropping  “time balls” at noon, every day since 1844.  Starting in 1877, they telegraphed a daily signal to New York City, triggering a “time ball” drop from the top of the Western Union Building.  By 1902, thousands of clocks across the country were hard-wired to the telegraph system and synchronized daily by a nationally broadcast noon time-signal.  Synchronized clocks helped regulate business affairs, and improved communication, railroad safety, and maritime navigation.  The daily signal was a five-minute procedure, starting at five-til, and ending at “official” noon.

This image, from an article announcing the planned erection of a new, telegraphically controlled “time ball” in Boston gives a sense of what they would have looked like - the ball was five feet in diameter, and the pole was 26 feet high:


Boston Post, April 8, 1902, page 2.
At the time, several cities around the country, including Philadelphia, Chicago, Buffalo, Galveston and New York City, already boasted similar, telegraphically controlled “time balls.”

On New Year's Eve, 1902, the Naval Observatory added a new tradition; an annual time-signal to mark the start of the new year:

An interesting part of the transmission of correct time is the plan, which was first put into operation last winter and will doubtless be followed hereafter, of sending out telegraphic signals to mark the exact instant of the beginning of the New Year.  In Washington the time ball was illuminated by an electric scarlet light as it fell.  The Western Union Company took up the plan with enthusiasm and five minutes before 12 o’clock a series of signals was sent out omitting certain seconds to mark clearly each thirtieth and sixtieth second, the final click, after a ten second interval, marking the exact instant of midnight.  The series was repeated at 1, 2, and 3 a. m. as a midnight signal for those using central, mountain, and Pacific standard time.   

In this way every portion of the country received the signal directly from the Naval Observatory. It stirs the blood to think of these successive series of signals flashing over thousands of miles of wire to every telegraph office in the United States. One-tenth of a second[iv] was the time the electric current required to pass from Washington to the Lick Observatory in California.   

As Admiral Chester said, in describing the event to the Times man: “The electric current made audible from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico every swing of the pendulum of our standard clock as it counted out, in its quiet, solemn way, the last moments of the dying year.”[v]

For New Year's Eve, 1903, they expanded the reach of the New Year's time-signal:

The Sandusky Star-Journal (Ohio), December 24, 1903, page 7.

This year is is proposed not only to secure a wide distribution of these New Year signals throughout North and South America . . . but also . . . to send one or more of the . . . signals around the world and back to the very room in the naval observatory where they started.

The Sandusky Star-Journal (Ohio), December 24, 1903, page 7.

The government also made plans to decorate and illuminate the time balls:




To Mark Start of Year.

Every Hydrographic Office Will Drop Ball at Midnight, Dec. 31.

Word was received from Washington, D. C., yesterday that the officers of the weather bureau of the Department of Agriculture have arranged a novel celebration to mark the beginning of the year 1904.  In every government hydrographic office in the United States, Hawaii, the Philippines, Cuba, and Porto Rico, the time ball will be appropriately decorated with flags and electric lights and dropped at midnight on New Year’s eve. . . .

The dropping of the time ball will be regulated by electricity from the weather bureau at Washington.


The Inter-Ocean (Chicago), December 18, 1903, page 6.

The tradition continued.

As the New Year of 1906 was fast approaching, “time balls” were expected to drop around the globe, in sync with a global New Year's time-signal emanating from the United States:



The signal will reach some parts of the world at unusual hours, as for instance its happening into Rome at 6 o'clock in the morning and at London an hour earlier, but it is expected that at every foreign capital the arrival of the American message will be acknowledged by the dropping of a time ball, the dipping of a flag, the booming of cannon or some other complement to Uncle Sam.

The Minneapolis Journal, December 31, 1905, page 10.

In New York City, the “time ball” was located on top of the Western Union Building, at 195 Broadway, just a few blocks south of the original New York Times building at 41 Park Row, and a few blocks north of what was then the traditional New Year's Eve party spot, Trinity Church.  It is therefore possible that New Year's Eve revelers in New York City may have witnessed a New Year's Eve ball drop as early as 1902, five years before the first ball drop at Time's Square.

The New York Times hosted its first New Year's Eve celebrations at their newly built headquarters at Time's Square in 1904; with fireworks - no ball drop.  Two years later, the city banned fireworks - giving The Times the impetus to dream up a new way to mark the New Year - borrowing from an old tradition.

Time's Square's first New Year's Eve ball drop took place on December 31, 1907.

Chicago enjoyed its own illuminated ball drop precisely (thanks to the New Year's Eve time signal) one hour later:


Time Ball to Be Dropped.

That everybody may know just the moment for the beginning of whatever revelry is to slip by the watchful eye of the law and convert the city into one crashing blare of noise, the government will drop an electrically illuminated time ball on top of the Masonic temple, controlled by an electric flash from the government observatory at Washington, D. C.  The globe will be decorated with six large red lights, and a special detail of police is to guard the approaches to the Masonic temple to prevent the anxious crowds from getting too excited when the ball drops.

The Inter-Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), December 31, 1907, page 12.



The Topeka State Journal, January 1, 1912, page 10.


Happy New Year!!!!

[(Revised August 30 and October 3, 2016)]

For more information on the history of the Time's Square Ball, see TimesSquareNYC.org.


[iii] The United States Naval Observatory was also involved in the discovery of the moons of Mars; and some of the earliest uses of the word, “Martian,” as a noun, meaning a being from Mars. See my earlier post, The World’s First Martians – and First Martian Invasion.
[iv] An earlier report put the time for transmission to the Lick Observatory in California as 0.06 seconds. See The Washington Times (DC), June 24, 1903, page 4 ([T]he midnight signal sent out last New Year Eve was accurately timed at the Lick Observatory, California, and found to have taken but 0.06 of a second in transmission.).
[v] The Washington Times, August 23, 1903, page 21.


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