Now, can someone please explain to me why anyone would spend hours, and we are talking hours here, milling around the Times Square area boxed in, deprived of back-packs or alcohol by the NYPD, just to be part of a crowd that will cheer the dropping of a ball down a flag-pole. And what if it’s freezing cold, why bother? But wait there’s more. It’s a Big Deal here, a huge event, televised presentations, whole TV shows made up to support the frenzy, along with an assortment of B or C lister celebs on hand. At least the A-listers have the common sense to stay away.
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So how did it all start? A little history is in order. Formerly Longacre Square (after the Long Acre of London’s carriage-making district), it was renamed Times Square in 1904 at the request of the New York Times owner, Adolph Ochs, who published his newspaper from a building at the southern end of the square. The Square (which word really should be italicized since it isn’t a square at all) forms a bow-tie of roads intersecting at 42nd Street, Broadway and Seventh Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. The name Broadway is the English literal translation of the Dutch name “Breede weg.” Interestingly the actual orientation of Broadway is almost true north-south, unlike the city grid imposed by the City Commissioners in 1811 which generally lines the avenues with the orientation of the island of Manhattan, which itself about 20 degrees to the North East.
Broadway was originally the Wickquasgeck Trail, established in Manhattan by Native Americans. After the arrival of the Dutch, the trail became the main road through the island from Nieuw Amsterdam at the southern tip. You may recall that the island of Mannahatta (“land of many hills”), as it was then called, was sold to the Dutch Governor by the native Lenape tribe for the modern-day equivalent of $20. This sleight of hand served to establish Manhattan’s reputation for double dealing, ripping off the natives and fostered a tradition whose denizens clubbed together in Wall Street. Ultimately culminating in the crème de la crème, numero uno, and general all-round bounder, in the shape of Bernie “I Made off” with the money, and who is now serving a considerable life sentence at one of the Government’s full board hospitality centers, orange jumpsuits included.
Broadway became popular as the development of Lower Manhattan pushed homes, theaters, and prostitution north from the Tenderloin District. The first theater on the square was built by cigar manufacturer and occasional music impresario Oscar Hammerstein. By the early 1890s this previously unsettled stretch of Broadway was lit up with fledgling white electric light, hence the nickname it acquired as the “Great White Way”.
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New Year's Eve has been celebrated in Times Square since 1904, but the New Year’s Eve Ball’s maiden descent wasn’t until 1907. Made of wrought iron and wood, adorned with one hundred 25-watt light bulbs it was 5 feet in diameter and weighed 700 lbs. Except for the war years of 1942 and 1943 the Ball has been lowered every year since 1907. Subsequent balls have been lightened using iron, then aluminum, until Times Square 2000 when New Year's Eve Ball was completely redesigned by Waterford Crystal. According to the Official Website of Times Square the 2010 the Ball is a geodesic sphere, 12 feet in diameter, weighing 11, 875 lbs, and built to withstand the stresses of high winds, precipitation and temperature fluctuation to shine 400 feet above Times Square. There are 2,688 crystal triangles bolted to 672 Philips LED modules which are attached to the aluminum frame of the Ball.
Interestingly the actual notion of a ball "dropping" to signal the passage of time dates back long before New Year's Eve was ever celebrated in Times Square. The first "time-ball" was installed above England's Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1833. This ball would drop at one o'clock every afternoon, allowing the captains of nearby ships to set their chronometers.
So there you have it, not just a load of old balls!