The annual ball drop in Times Square tonight is the vestige of what was once a network of daily time-ball drops in US coastal cities, including Boston, to help mariners calibrate their shipboard clocks - vital to determining their location once they were at sea.
Boston's first time ball, a 1/8-inch thick copper sphere four feet in diameter and weighing 400 pounds, dropped at noon on May 8, 1878, from the top of a 20-foot square mast on the roof of the Equitable Life Assurance building at Devonshire and Milk streets downtown.
Well into the 20th century, and eventually moved to other buildings, the ball, triggered at first from telegraph signals from an observatory at Harvard, and later, in Washington, provided both ship captains and locals a way to synchronize their clocks and watches once a day.
The Equitable Building in the 1870s (via BPL collection); compare to the view today:
In an age when electronic signals were spreading around the world over telegraph and then telephone wires, the system was a state-of-the-art solution to an ancient problem: How to help ship captains navigate the seven seas. Figuring latitude was relatively easy - it could be done by noting the position of the sun or stars. But there was nothing similar for longitude - and you need both longitude and latitude to know where you are.
In the 1700s, an English carpenter turned clock maker named John Harrison solved the longitude problem by building very reliable clocks, set to the time in Greenwich. By comparing the time at which the sun hit its highest point in the sky - noon - with the time back in Greenwich, a mariner could use the time difference to figure out how far from Greenwich he was and so what his longitude was. Couple that with latitude and he'd know just where he was.
The problem was that the clocks of the day didn't always keep the best of time, so captains needed a way to figure out how off their clocks were running and make adjustments at the ports they'd visit.
In the 1829, Portsmouth, England installed a time ball, by which mariners could set their clocks. In the 1840s, the US Navy began experimenting with one (which was mostly a failure since the Navy offices were far up the Potomac, beyond where most ocean-going ships would dock). In Boston, people started talking about building a tower from which to drop a ball atop the State House; that plan foundered in part because it mostly wouldn't be visible from the harbor; in the meantime, local companies offered the service of synchronizing on-board clocks with their own timekeepers.
But in the 1870s, the US Naval Observatory began looking at the idea again with gusto. In Boston, the Harvard Observatory teamed up with the Equitable company, the US Army's Signal Corps and Stearns & George, a company that specialized in installing telegraph-connected burglar alarms (and which, in 1877, may have published the world's first phone book) to build and install Boston's first time ball - at a cost of $608.50, according to a detailed description of the set up and its operation written by Army Signal Corps Sgt. B.M. Purssell in 1881, as part of an overall Signal Corps Circular of Information with Regard to Time-Balls.
A telegraph line ran from the observatory across the river to the Equitable building, where it ran through the Stearns & George office and then to a Signal Corps office, where it connected to a battery-powered mechanism connected to iron ratchets at the top of the mast, constructed out of "clear white pine."
At 11:55 a.m., using a "fine chronometer" in the Signal Corps office to gauge the local time, somebody would winch the ball halfway up to the top of the mast. At 11:58, he would winch it to the top, where it would then be held by a ratchet mechanism magnetized by a battery, which would hold the ball in place. At exactly noon, the signal from the observatory would stop, creating an electrical break that would demagnetize the ratchet mechanism, releasing the ball, which would then fall, signalling noon - it would stop on a rubberized buffer at the bottom of the mast.
Or, at least, in theory. As Purssell wrote, the system worked perfectly the first day - the ball fell at exactly noon, local time. Purssell recorded that the ball failed to work 16 times between the first drop and New Year's Eve of that year, and then 18 more times between then and January, 1881.
The mechanism in the Signal Corps office, from Purssell's report:
The first two failures were due to "residual magnetism" - the ratchet remained magnetized after the signal dropped and didn't release the ball. Over the next three years, other things that went wrong included the circuit from Harvard failing, the Harvard observatory sending the drop signal a bit too early, stormy weather and ice freezing the ball in place. On Aug. 27, 1878, the ball dropped four seconds too early; on Feb. 15, 1879, it fell 15 seconds too early.
In January, 1879, Sgt. Purssell and his underlings took over releasing the ball for its drop by hand on Sundays.
Even on days when the system used the telegraph signal to work, considerable human attention was required, both to turning the crank to lift the ball and to being ready to spring into action should a problem arise.
During the operation of dropping, the thoughts of the operator must be intensely concentrated upon his work. The slightest wandering of the mind from the business in hand will lead to failure.
And, well, Pvt. Byrann, you know what you did - on Oct. 1, 1878, while you were operating the system manually, you released the ball 30 seconds too early.
From June 17, 1880 until Jan. 22, 1881, or more than seven months, though, the ball dropped without incident, all through reliance on the circuit from Harvard. But on Jan. 22, 1881, Purssell wrote:
Ice froze on north and east sides of staff so that the ball could not be moved. Had the ice been discovered in time it might have been removed.
In truth, however, the ball was ultimately kind of a failure, except perhaps as a demonstration of electrical signaling in the day, Alexis McCrossen writes in an overview of American time-balling. In particular, he writes, few captains, let alone locals, actually used the ball drop to adjust their clocks and watches.
For instance, the officer in charge of Boston's Hydrographic Office found in 1886 that a prominent member of the Chamber of Commerce had never heard of the time ball, and those city officials who were "in the know" did not make use of it, since "bells are struck all over the city at noon by the Cambridge Observatory." He further reported that "prominent shipping people" assured him "that the ball is seldom if ever made use of by the captains of vessels for rating chronometers." Captains of ships themselves confirmed this report, stating "that they seldom see the ball, and never think of rating their chronometers by it."
Still, the Signal Corps, and, eventually, the Hydrographic Office, didn't give up. In 1884, the ball was moved to the top of the Post Office Building in Post Office Square. The ball was terminated for awhile, but in 1902, the Hydrographic Office erected a new time-ball set up at the top of the Ames Building, which still stands across from the Old State House, and where the signals to release the ball were changed from good old Harvard to a naval observatory in Washington, routed via the hydrographic office in the basement of the Custom House.
Every so often, the Globe would announce a problem with the time ball. On March 31, 1909, for example, the paper reported that the Hydrographic Office wouldn't even try to hoist the ball when the winds exceeded 20 m.p.h. for fear the heavy ball would put too much of a strain on the mast in the wind and snap it.
The office figured out the problem and was able to get the ball up in even a gale. But on Jan. 20, 1917, in the midst of a furious snowstorm, the Globe reports, "hundreds of pedestrians gazed skyward and wondered at the supreme nerve of man" as an Ames Building employee "clambered up the time ball pole on the roof of the tall structure" to untangle the ropes that were supposed to raise the ball but instead got knotted up in the wind.
And on Jan. 8, 1919, the paper reported, the ball stopped working, but it took some time for the assigned mechanic to get up to the roof and figure out why, because he was ill with the flu.
And then the ball seems to have just faded away. McCrossen writes that during World War I, the government decided it had more important things to spend time and money on than time balls that weren't much being used for the original purpose and began decommissioning its setups across the US. By 1922, almost all were gone, he writes.