It was not always a midnight kaleidoscope of roaring multitudes and a
1,200pound sphere clad in Waterford crystal, with 30,000 watts of
lightemitting diodes to dazzle America. A century ago Monday, the first New
Year’s ball descended in Times Square and a tradition was born, with modest
crowds cheering a fivefoot iron globe studded with 216 electric lamps.
James Estrin/The New York Times
Tests of the New Year’s ball, loaded with Waterford crystal, were conducted on
The New York Times
Traffic will be blocked beginning Monday afternoon.
There were years when the occasion and its globular star had to be subdued. In
1917, the square was blacked out for a wartime coal shortage, and while the ball
was dropped, The New York Times reported: “The New Year slunk in with rubber
shoes on, coming upon a lightless, noiseless and frigid Broadway.”
In 1943 and 1944, World War II laid a melancholy hand on the celebrations. There
were no glowing balls. Instead, planespotter beams crisscrossed the sky, and
the crowds, after midnight cheers, silently remembered Americans overseas. In
2001 the specter of Sept. 11 hovered over the proceedings.
But for millions of New Yorkers and visitors to the city, and in the television
age for most Americans and audiences abroad, the balldropping has been a
euphoric occasion in nearly all of the 100 years since the first globe was
created by Walter F. Palmer, the chief electrician for The Times, at the behest
of the publisher, Adolph S. Ochs, who wanted a spectacular midnight show in the
There were antecedents of a sort. Since the early 1800s, mariners could set
ships’ clocks by the lowering of iron balls in ports at noon daily. But in 1907,
three years after Longacre Square had been renamed, the idea was celebratory and
promotional, with crowds eddying around the 26story Times Tower to watch the
ball descend on its 70foot flagpole at midnight to mark the new year.
While The Times occupied the trapezoidal tower from 1905 to 1913, when it moved
to a larger “annex” on West 43rd Street, the balldropping tradition continued,
even after the building was sold years later.
The balls were made of iron and then wood until 1955, when aluminum was used for
a third version. For several years in the 1980s, the aluminum was shaped like an
apple. In 1995, it was given a flashier look with rhinestones. Until then, the
ball had been lowered by a halfdozen men, but in recent years cables controlled
by computers have been used.
The ball that will descend Monday atop 1 Times Square is a new, $1.1 million
hightech creation, with a skeleton of aluminum and a skin composed of 672
Waterford crystal panels and additional pyramidshaped mirrors to best reflect
the light of 9,576 diodes generating 625,033 lumens. That is more than double
the dazzlepower of last year’s ball, which looked like a porcupine with 600
Security, a major concern in the age of terrorism, was taking shape on Sunday.
For blocks around the square, metal barriers were in place to funnel crowds, and
blue wooden sawhorses were stacked on their sides, in reserve, along the curbs
of Broadway. Undercover officers in plain clothes will be in the crowds, along
with thousands of uniformed officers. Others will be posted atop buildings
overlooking the scene.
Alcohol and backpacks are forbidden in the area. Traffic will be blocked off
Monday afternoon and parking is banned on most streets. Video surveillance
cameras will be used to monitor the activity. Devices to detect airborne
chemical or radiological elements are set up, and a helicopter with
sophisticated communications equipment will hover overhead.
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said on Sunday that security for the
celebration has been increased, even as crowds have become better behaved. “The
nature of the crowd is more of a tourist crowd than 10 years ago,” he said in an
interview. “It is an entertainment event from 8 o’clock on, as opposed to years
ago, when it was a lot of waiting and a lot of drinking.”
By midafternoon on Sunday, Times Square was already swelling with people in a
celebratory mood, watched over by officers and cajoled by entrepreneurs hawking
tours and souvenirs, knockoff perfumes and New Year’s Eve glasses with the big
zeros in “2008” for eye holes. Crews were setting up spotlights, speakers on
lampposts and sound stages for a lengthy roster of entertainers.
The ball was not yet visible from the street.
But a little boy perched on a man’s shoulder glimpsed something. “I think I see
it, Daddy,” he said.
Other people pointed toward the sky — was it a bird? a plane? Superman? — and
gestured with circled fingertips, as if guiding the great ball in its
agonizingly slow descent: 77 feet in 60 seconds, starting at 11:59 p.m.
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