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This Is Why We "Drop a Ball" on New Year's Eve        

It's an odd custom, when you think about it.

Almost every city, country, and community has its own way of celebrating the new year, from breaking dishes in Denmark to wearing lucky underwear in Brazil. But no way of turning the calendar page is quite as famed and iconic as the New Year's Eve ball drop in Times Square.

Every December 31st, for decades, the eyes of the country and the world turn to New York City to watch a giant ball, mounted atop one of the city's highest buildings, drop a few feet down a pole. It's kind of an odd custom, when you think about it, and has a surprisingly long history. So why did the ball drop start in the first place? And why do we still do it today?

You can credit The New York Times. The newspaper moved to 42nd Street and Broadway in 1904, changing the name of Longacre Square to Times Square. To mark the occasion, the paper's owner, Adolph Ochs, wanted to end the year with a bang. Ochs arranged a massive fireworks display, which came to replace the chiming bells of Trinity Church that had been the go-to spot for celebrating New Year's up to that point. More than 200,000 people showed up for the Times fireworks—it was clear the city was eager for a new tradition.

But Ochs was not a man to rest on his laurels. For the 1908 New Year's celebration, he hired designer Artkraft Strauss, who would go on to create many of Times Square's iconic signs, to outdo the fireworks. Strauss built a 700-pound ball of wood and iron that was five feet in diameter and lit up with dozens of 25-watt bulbs. As many looked up at the roof of One Times Square, the ball slowly descended a flagpole to the amusement of the crowd that gathered. The first ball drop was a hit and a new tradition was born.

(The roots of the ball drop tradition may go back much further, though. The New York Times points out that the New Year's Eve display is reminiscent of the daily 1:00 p.m. lowering of a ball at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, that's been helping captains "synchronize their chronometers" since 1833.)

The festivities continued to center around One Times Square, even as the paper itself moved its headquarters up a block. The same ball continued to be used for years, until 1920, when a new design was introduced: The second New Year's ball was also five feet wide, but it was made of wrought iron. At 400 pounds, it was lighter than the original.

In 1955, the wrought iron ball was replaced with an aluminum ball that weighed just 200 pounds. This same ball continued to be used for 44 more years, with a few modifications: In 1981, the lights were changed to red and a green stem was added to reflect the "Big Apple" in coordination with the "I New York" ad campaign. Six years later, in 1987, white lights replaced the red ones once again. Then, in 1991, these became red, white, and blue lights as a sign of support for the troops of Operation Desert Shield.

To welcome in the year 2000, a new Millennium Ball was introduced. Six feet in diameter and weighing more than 1,000 pounds, it incorporated 600 halogen bulbs over more than 500 triangle-shaped panels, and was constructed out of Waterford Crystal. (Three years later, these triangles would be inscribed with names of countries and organizations affected by the 9/11 attacks.)

The heavier Centennial Ball took over for the Millennium Ball in 2007, and two years later, an even bigger ball—12 feet in diameter and weighing almost 12,000 pounds— became the crown jewel of New Year's Eve. Containing 2,688 Waterford Crystal panels, the ball now sits atop the One Times Square building throughout the year. It seems those behind the celebration realized what a shame it would be for such a spectacular object to only come out one day of the year. And for more on the final night of the year, learn all about The Best and Worst New Year's Eve Party Etiquette.

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Alex Daniel
A journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Read more
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