When the New York Times officially opened its new headquarters in Times Square in 1904, owner Alfred Ochs not only convinced the city to rename the intersection formerly known as Longacre Square, but he also threw a grand party to commemorate the milestone. The New Year's Eve soiree started with an all-day street festival, transitioned to a fireworks display ending with cheers at midnight from the crowd of more than 200,000. Previous New Year's Eve celebrations typically took place outside of Old Trinity Church in Manhattan's financial district. But by contemporary standards these weren't parties at all because there was no ball.
For decades, residents of U.S. cities would synchronize their pocketwatches using a giant globe that would descend from a pole in a public space to mark the exact hour. Ochs conceived of an ornate "time ball" that would descend just before midnight to mark the exact end of the year. The first ball to drop an illuminated 400-pound iron-and-wood orb was lowered from a flagpole. Tradition took root and the ball has heralded a new beginning almost every year since in 1942 and 1943, during World War II, the ball was temporarily put out of commission by a war-time "dimout." Instead crowds gathered in the square and observed a moment of silence before hooting and hollering.
Although the newspaper moved to a different location in 1914, the ball remained a Times Square tradition, with several makeovers along the way. In 1955 it slimmed down to a 200-pound aluminum globe, and remained that way until the 1980s when red lights and a green stem were added to make it an apple promoting the city's "I Love New York" tourism campaign. That flashy phase ended in 1988 in favor of simple white lights, followed later by edgier rhinestones and strobes. But the biggest overhaul was saved for the ball that would ring in the new millennium. Plumping up to 1,070 pounds, the massive new ball touted handcrafted Waterford crystal triangles, each with a design symbolizing various messages such as "Hope for Fellowship," "Hope for Wisdom" and "Hope for Abundance." With minor tweaks, that sphere remained through the 2007 fiesta.
This year's ball first unveiled for the 2008 drop is 12 feet in diameter (double the size of balls past) and weighs 11,875 pounds; it sparkles with 32,256 LED lights and 2,668 crystals. It's not the only thing that's gotten bigger since the 1900s; a crowd estimated at a million people will be celebrating in Times Square on Dec. 31, and millions more will be watching worldwide.