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The Times Square ball drop's raucous past and lonely present

Workers install 192 new "Gift of Happiness" Waterford Crystal triangles on the Times Square New Year's Eve Ball on December 27, 2020, in New York City. The annual event will be more like a tree falling in the forest than a raucous event this year, amid coronavirus restrictions.

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By MICHAEL S. ROSENWALD | The Washington Post | Published: December 31, 2020

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The annual New Year's eve ball drop celebration in Times Square actually began with dynamite.

It was 1904. Adolph Ochs, the owner of the New York Times, had just finished construction of a towering new headquarters on 42nd Street.

Ochs was very proud of this new building. He even published a 48-page special supplement to celebrate a structure that, as the paper put it, "reaches higher toward the clouds than anything within twelve miles."

To celebrate the new building and the calendar flipping to 1905, the paper invited New Yorkers to celebrate at the new tower with fireworks and a performance by Francesco Fanciulli's band. Throngs have gathered in Times Square ever since, except for two years during World War II — and this year, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"There are absolutely no spectators allowed in Times Square," Police Chief Terence A. Monahan warned Wednesday at a news conference.

In 1904, massive crowds began to gather as the sun set, lured by the Times promise that "Bombs will burst 1,000 feet in the air, and not a feature of the exhibition will be hidden to Greater New York or the surrounding country."

"Broadway seemed the thoroughfare to which all faces were turned," the Times reported the next day. "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."

It was very loud.

"Every known device for making noise was pressed into service," the Times said. "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."

As the clock struck midnight, "another bomb and another" shot up from the tower.

"No more beautiful picture was ever limned in fire on the curtain of midnight," the Times reported. "As the first bomb ascended in a graceful arc, and burst 1,000 feet in the air, the city knew that 1904 had passed, and from factory, locomotive, and steamship whistles welcomed its successor."

The launching of dynamite from the Times Building to celebrate the New Year continued until 1907, when the city, perhaps concluding that firing explosives over thousands of people and scores of other rising skyscrapers was unsafe, refused to issue a permit.

In search of another way to celebrate, Ochs hired Artkraft Strauss, the preeminent Times Square signmaker, to build him a giant time ball — a precisely calibrated device invented in the early 1900s to tell time in city centers and on naval ships.

Ochs would use his time ball — "a 700-pound wood-and-iron ball, five feet in diameter and illuminated by 100 25-watt bulbs," according to the Times — to countdown the final minute of the year. Over the year, the ball has changed, but the tradition has not.

"Today, the drop is initiated by a laser-cooled atomic clock in Colorado, the primary time standard for the United States," according to the New Yorker. "It continues to be our most spectacular display of public time-keeping."

But this year there will be no throngs of cold revelers in Times Square. There will be no noise, no ticker tape, no couples kissing to ring in the new year. But still, one year will pass into the next — 2020, to 2021.

And maybe next year things will be different.

Maybe Times Square will sound and feel and be alive again like it was that December evening in 1904, when, as the Times recorded, "the spirit of the occasion was one of good fellowship" and the sky "took on all colors of the rainbow."