Certain things happen, like clockwork, at the stroke of midnight every New Year’s Eve. Noisemakers blare; your glitter-coated party hat begins to shed; and an 11,875-pound ball covered in 2,688 Waterford Crystals descends down a flagpole in the middle of New York’s Times Square.
While the crystals are a relatively new addition, the ball’s relationship with time goes way back. In 1829, a British Royal Navy captain named Robert Wauchope created “time balls” to help ship captains keep more precise time. Located near harbors, these balls—initially red and made of leather and wood—would be lowered each day at 1 p.m. (or earlier, at noon, in the United States, where the first time ball appeared in 1845). Thus, sailors had a standardized time with which to calibrate their chronometers, the extremely precise marine watches that helped them determine longitude while at sea.
Although originally designed with the seafaring in mind, time balls eventually became a sort of community-wide event. It wasn’t uncommon for those on land to gather and watch the ball drop. Throughout the 19th century, an increased awareness of time coupled with rapid industrialization (which required greater synchrony among people and machines) made inventions like the time ball increasingly significant.