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When the Times Square Ball Drop Began at Midnight

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But that raises the inevitable question: When was the transition to the countdown-style ball drop we know today?

I did a deep dive in The New York Times’s digital archive and concluded that it happened on Dec. 31, 1938.

The ball drop on Dec. 31, 1937, had been like the one in 1907. “When the illuminated ball dropped down the staff on top of the Times Building at the instant of midnight, a roar of voices and horns went up,” The Times reported on Jan. 1, 1908.

The 1938 drop was different. Again, from The Times: “At exactly three seconds to midnight, at his lofty station atop the Times Building, Thomas Ward, electrician who first officiated at the ‘dropping of the ball’ in 1914, celebrated his silver jubilee by pulling a switch that sent the bulb-studded globe sliding down the sixty-five-foot flagpole. It was precisely midnight when it reached the base.” The article added that Ward then pulled another switch to illuminate the numerals for the new year — 1,9,3 and 9.

The following year, the drop was lengthened to five seconds. Eventually, of course, it would become 60 seconds.

Perhaps the change in 1938 went unnoticed because there were more newsworthy attractions to cover that night. The opening of the 1939 World’s Fair was just four months away, and the fair’s publicity machine had concocted a stunt: The “Girl of Tomorrow” — Gladys Bensen, 18, from Jamaica, Queens — climbed out from a miniature “Perisphere,” the giant white orb that, paired with the elongated pyramidal “Trylon,” was a symbol of the fair.

The future-looking fair would predict lasting changes in technology, fashion and lifestyles. But in one small way, the world had already changed when Ward pulled his switch. The New Year’s Eve Times Square ball drop would never be the same.

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