The United States might set its New Year’s celebrations by the sparkly ball that descends over Times Square, but the New York ritual owes its origins to an old seafaring invention, one of the most famous artifacts of which sits in the Naval Observatory in Northwest DC. Long before the development of telegraphic, radio, and microwave technologies to keep accurate time, “time balls”—spherical devices that descended at the same time every day and large enough to be spotted by ships miles away—were the global standard.
And when New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs presided over a celebration to ring in 1908, he commissioned the installation of a giant ball to descend over 1 Times Square as an homage to “ball time.”
Time balls were one of the first significant attempts at building an global standard for keeping time. The ringing of church bells on the hour—popularized in 14th-century Europe—was wildly inaccurate. The development of chronometers in the 18th century enabled ships crossing oceans to keep reliable time on-board, but international time remained difficult to track. In 1829, British Navy Captain Robert Wauchope came up with a solution: a large ball that’s dropped at an exact specific time and can be seen for miles by approaching vessels, which could then synchronize their marine chronometers.
The time ball worked so well that Wauchope passed along his idea to his Royal Navy commanders and the US Navy. Four years later, a time ball was installed at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, where it still falls at exactly 1 PM GMT, signaling the time to the world.
In 1845, the US Naval Observatory, then located at 23rd and E streets, Northwest, installed the first American time ball using a “Gumelastic composition” supplied by Charles Goodyear, the inventor of vulcanized rubber. The ball dropped every day at 12 PM Eastern Standard Time.
“Time may be made known every day to the inhabitants of the city of Washington,” Navy Secretary John Y. Mason said at the time.
Mason’s praise for the new device bore out. Former President John Quincy Adams reportedly made it a habit to walk over to the Observatory to see the time ball fall. And, as the New Yorker reported in 2013, we know the exact time President Abraham Lincoln was shot thanks to a meticulous stage carpenter who set the clock in the Ford’s Theatre vestibule according to the Observatory.
“I fixed the clock in the vestibule by the ball today and it is right by that,” the carpenter said at the time.
The DC time ball dropped every day for nine decades to set the time in the nation’s capital. It was moved in 1885 to the State, War, and Navy Building (now the Eisenhower Executive Office Building). “Ball time” was kept until 1936, when the device was officially retired after to advancements in telegraphic and radio technologies, though it was briefly brought out retirement in 1999 for DC’s millennium celebration.
A reproduction of the original time ball now sits on top of the US Naval Observatory on Massachusetts Ave., Northwest. While it no longer drops, it can still be seen as a reminder of how Washington used to tell time.