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The Origins of the Times Square Ball Drop

The Origins of the Times Square Ball Drop

On Dec. 31, 1904, millions of thousands of revelers gathered in Midtown Manhattan, near the newly constructed New York Times Building.

Then, as the clock struck midnight, there was an explosion of dynamite — and the tower appeared to catch on fire.

But the flames were controlled and very much intentional. In fact, they were the idea of ​​The Times’s publisher, Adolph S. Ochs, who was hoping to show off the company’s new building.

“No more beautiful picture was ever limned in fire on the curtain of midnight,” The Times reported the next day. “From the four corners of the skyscraper lambent flames played. From base to dome the giant structure was alight.”

The sight was “a torch to usher in the new born, a funeral pyre for the old which pierced the very heavens,” The Times wrote.

By 1905, the city blocks around the new building — Times Square, named after The Times — had already become a New Year’s Eve destination. HAS description from that first New Year’s Eve celebration in The Times could have been written in any year since: “As early as 9 o’clock the square was packed, and when the time approached when another year should be inscribed upon the century book the crush was so great that progress was well nigh impossible in any direction.”

Over the last 114 years, the festivities have swelled into a global event. The police close off the area to traffic in the afternoon to control the crowd, and an estimated 1.2 billion spectators tune in on TV.

For years, the Times Square Alliance, the co-organizer of New Year’s Eve in Times Square, has selected honorees for the year-end celebration. Following a deadly year for reporters, photographers and other media workers — at least 60 were killed worldwide, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists — the event’s organizers have announced that the 2019 party will celebrate journalism and press freedom, and that the committee will be its official charity honoree.

“In a place that is synonymous with news and home to multiple national news broadcasts, and which itself was named after a newspaper (which started the New Year’s celebration here in 1904), no theme could be more apt as we enter 2019,” Tim Tompkins, the president of the alliance, said in a statement.

But the celebration was not originally so high-minded. In the last years of the 19th century, The Times was struggling. Mr. Ochs, who bought the paper in 1896, spent the early years of his tenure dragging it back from the brink of bankruptcy. Slowly, things turned around. By 1902, Mr. Ochs had decided to move the paper’s downtown headquarters, on 41 Park Row, north to the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, which was then named Longacre Square. The Times was set to move to its new home on New Year’s Day, 1905, and Mr. Ochs wanted to christen the new building with a show.

(The Times also ran a 40-odd-page special section in the first issue of 1905 describing the building in meticulous detail — down to architectural renderings of the tower’s subbasement.)

For the New Year’s Eve fireworks, The Times hired Henry J. Pain, a chemist who had done the pyrotechnic displays for the presidential inauguration of William McKinley.

It was not the first time the building had served as a beacon. Before the paper’s staff had even moved into the new building, Mr. Ochs had begun experimenting with ways to use the tower. In November 1904, The Times announced the winner of that year’s presidential election with searchlight signals on top of the 412-foot building: A steady light pointed west meant that Theodore Roosevelt had won, according to a decoder published before the election.

On Dec. 31, 1904, the paper ran a small front-page advertisement inviting readers to the corner of 43rd Street and Broadway that night to celebrate “the removal of The New York Times to its new building.”

And celebrate they did. “Every known device for making noise was pressed into service,” The Times reported. “There were horns of all shapes and sizes — horns which wailed with an almost human note and horns which carried an ear-shattering volume of sound. One of the favorite kinds of horns was fashioned in the semblance of a champagne bottle and gave forth a series of notes which sounded the scale from top to bottom. There were long horns and thin horns, thin horns and stouts.”

The following year, the Times Tower celebration again included explosives. But by New Year’s Eve of 1907, The Times replaced the fireworks with a 700-pound, electrified ball that would be lowered from the top of the Times Building, setting off a century-long tradition.

A version of the ball would be dropped almost every year thereafter.

Doris Burke contributed research.

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