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Time: Big Apple ball drop traced to day with 2 noons

Updated on January 18, 2015

Time is fleeting. When you read that first sentence it was the present. Now it’s history (the past); the words you’re currently reading are the present and the next sentence is the future.

As we examine grains of sand flowing down an hourglass (or the second hand on a clock) we can see time's continuously changing state – the movement of time.

Time is difficult to define. Some great minds have tried and some of their quotes are sprinkled below.

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.”

— Henry David Thoreau

As we toss away another calendar, time is on my mind. I wondered why Americans mark the beginning of a new year with the dropping of a ball in Times Square. As I researched this tradition I found it was connected to the 19th century custom of daily ball drops that mariners used to set their ships’ clocks. Accurate time was needed by navigators to determine their longitude.

Each day at noon (in the U.S. or 1 p.m. in England) a large, painted wood or metal ball was dropped from a tall building along the harbor. This allowed navigators to synchronize their ships’ chronometers with local time.

In the 1800s, most people used sundials to tell the time. There’s a big flaw in relying on sundials. If you measure time at noon – when the sun is directly above your head – every place on earth will have a slightly different noon. At the same moment a clock in Washington, D. C. strikes noon, it’s 12:08 pm in Philadelphia, 12:12 pm in New York and 12:24 pm in Boston.

During this period, American towns and cities could establish their own time zones, referred to as “local mean time.” The state of Illinois contained 27 different times zones and Wisconsin had 38. Things happened at a different pace in the 19th century. When it could take days to travel 60 miles no one noticed that the time in one town wasn’t in sync with another.

That all changed when trains rumbled on the scene two centuries ago. On trains people could travel faster and farther than ever. In 1800, it took six weeks to go from Chicago to New York. Sixth years later, you boarded a train and in two days you reached the Big Apple.

The most precious resource we all have is time.”

— Steve Jobs

Pocket Watches & the Railroad

Accurate timekeeping was a key to railroad efficiency and safety. The American watch and railroad industry were born and progressed at roughly the same time. In the middle of the 19th century, watch manufactures began using machines to make better watches.

Railroads required that rail workers own watches initially with a minimum of 15-jewel movements that were accurate within 30 seconds per week. Railroad pocket watches had to stand up to constant abuse from the jarring and swaying of early trains. They were among the highest grade, most precise watches made, superseded in quality by navigational chronometers.

The conductor is THE person in charge of the train. The engineer controlled the locomotive, but he had to await for a signal from the conductor before safely leaving a train station.

Before starting on a run the conductor and engineer set their watches by the station’s clock and compared the time on their watches. Other crew members were required to sync their watches with one of these two men.

Railroads required watch accuracy be regularly inspected by a certified watchmaker.

In the 20th century, standards were increased to a minimum of 17-jewel movement. In the 1960s, the railroads authorized the use of wristwatches.

The beauty, craftsmanship and history of railroad pocket watches make them very collectible. The current price for a watch in fine condition ranges from $300 to $600.

To stay on time railroaders relied on pocket watches, which used a 24-hour system that differed from the sundial system based on the revolutions of the earth. (Since the earth’s orbit around the sun is oval shaped, rather than round, the length of a day differs throughout the year.)

Days during the summer months are close to 24-hours long. However, time fluctuates during the other seasons. In early September “sundial days” are 23 hours, 59 minutes and 41 seconds long, while in late December days are 24 hours and 31 seconds long.

Based on tradition, most people then preferred to follow “natural” sundial time, rather than “mechanical” clock time.

This use of “local mean time” was confusing for many train passengers. Each railroad followed the local time where its headquarters was located. In the 19th century, Pittsburgh was the hub of six railroads. A traveler in the Pittsburgh train station was confronted by six clocks, each one showing a different time.

This practice also caused deaths. In August 1853, a conductor on a Rhode Island train heading into a curved section of track called the Boston switch checked his pocket watch and discovered his train was running late.

The Boston switch was used by trains running in both directions, with northbound and southbound trains alternating on it.

The Rhode Island conductor knew that in a few minutes a northbound train would be on that track, forcing his train to wait. Eager to make up time, he ordered his engineer to pour on the speed so they’d be the first train through.

However, the other train was already on the Boston switch and the trains collided at full speed, killing 14 people and injuring 60. This was one of many rail tragedies that occurred that year. In 1853, there were 65 U.S. train wrecks and 165 deaths, including Bernie Pierce, son of U.S. President Franklin Pierce.

The railroads realized that something had to be done. This Rhode Island accident and many other collisions could have been prevented if the conductors on the two trains had the same time on their watches. Management decided it was time to standardized time.

Several different proposals were discussed in the following decades,. In the 1880s, all the major railroads finally agreed to adopt four time zones that roughly corresponded to our current Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific time zones.

On October 11, 1883, the country’s largest railroad companies attended a national convention on the matter and sanctioned the new times zones. They also agreed to use new standardized timetables to make it easier for passengers that traveled on different railroad lines.

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once.”

— Albert Einstein

The plan was implemented on November 18th. The press dubbed it “The Day of Two Noons.”

On Sunday, November 18, 1883, people didn’t know what to expect on this unique day. They crowded around the front of jewelry stores, watch repair shops and city hall clock towers to witness the two noons. Citizens were disappointed when they saw that all that was needed to sync from one system to another was to stop the clocks for a minute or several minutes and then start them again.

When it was noon standard time telegraph signals were sent to the nation's municipalities and train stations. Most cities used time balls to signal the beginning of the railroad’s new standardized time.

The Jersey City train station was one of many rail stations to change their clocks. Workers also removed signs over two large clocks – one marked “New York Time” and the other “Philadelphia Time" – and replaced them with signs saying, "Standard Time."

Whatever time is, I don’t have enough of it to figure out what it is.”

— David Allen

Some folks objected to standard time because they believed they were robbed of minutes or because it changed the laws of God. But most businesses adopted the new system and their employees and customers showed up on time. Train riders enjoyed the convenience of catching trains that ran on the same time set on their pocket watches and on sidewalk clocks.

Within a year, nearly all major U.S. cities embraced standard time. The system operated for 35 years without federal mandate. It thrived entirely on the say-so of the railroads. Finally in 1918, Congress adopted the U.S. Standard Time Act.

(Today, the U.S. covers nine time zones and time is based on an atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado. Scientists say this precision chronometer will not gain or lose a second in 100 million years. In 1964, the world adopted a more precise time scale, which occasionally requires the addition of an extra second – the leap second – to sync time with the earth’s imperfect orbit.)

The passage of time is an illusion.”

— Max Tegmark

Finally, let’s connect the dots between the noontime ball drop and the ball that drops at midnight every New Year’s Eve in Time Square.

One of the primary U.S. time ball sites was the Western Union Building in downtown New York. Each day, since 1877, a telegraph signal was dispatched at noon from the Naval Observatory in Washington, DC. to the office at the tip of Manhattan. The signal activated a metallic ball that descended down a building spire. The ball drop was visible throughout the financial district and in the harbor, where individuals set their watches and ships synced their chronometers.

At the dawn of the 20th century, The New York Times, one of Western Union’s neighbors, relocated from downtown to midtown. The Times moved into a building on a triangle of land at Broadway, Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street known as Long Acre Square. Times Publisher Alfred Ochs lobbied the city to rename the area Times Square after the newspaper. In January 1905, The Times moved into it 25-story tower, then the second tallest building in the world. To celebrate their first New Year’s in their new home, The Times staged an all-day street festival in Times Square, culminating with a midnight firework display on the top of their building.

A tradition had begun.


Two years later, the city banned the fireworks display, but Ochs took the noon time ball ritual and dressed it up for Broadway. He ordered a 700-pound iron ball containing 100 25-watt bulbs be constructed and positioned on the building’s flagpole. At midnight it was lowered to indicate the beginning of the New Year.

The event was captured in the pages of The New York Times: "The great shout that went up drowned out the whistles for a minute. The vocal power of the welcomers rose above even the horns and the cow bells and the rattles. Above all else came the wild human hullabaloo of noise, out of which could be formed dimly the words:

“ ‘Hurrah for 1908!' ”

Since then, the ball has annually signaled in the New Year, except during the World War II blackout in 1942 and 1943.

The Times moved to another midtown site in 1913 and sold the building in the 1961, but the New Year’s ball drop still persists. Today, (the 7th version of the ball) a 12,000-pound Waterford Crystal ball containing 32,000 LEDs is viewed by 1 million people in Times Square and a worldwide TV audience of over 1 billion people.

(Inoperable time ball can be seen at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. and atop a 60-foot-tall lighthouse that’s part of the Titanic Memorial at the South Street Seaport, Pier 15, New York City.) –TDowling

Time is a dressmaker specializing in alterations.”

— Faith Baldwin

© 2015 Thomas Dowling


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