One historical tidbit for the New Year regarding the New Year’s Eve ball drop.  What do the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, New York City’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and Global Positioning Satellites (GPS—SatNav for Anglophiles) have in common?  They all use instruments and systems to help people around the globe know the accurate time, and give the ability to derive from that information their position, accurately, on the Earth’s surface.  The dropping of the ball on New Year’s Eve in Times Square has a direct connection to time balls used by sailors worldwide from 1829 AD through the early 1900s.

The Royal Observatory is considered the pioneer in using stars to determine the accurate time.  Every afternoon, right before 1 PM, the Observatory would raise the ball on their tower, and at exactly 1 PM, drop it.  Every day, sailors in port would look for this “Time Hack” and calibrate their marine chronometers accordingly.  This “ball-dropping” practice spread throughout the world, including the United States.

Why was accurate time so important, aside from timely attendance of meetings?  Sailors needed accurate time to determine exactly where they were when sailing on the ocean.  Accurate time (and an accurate timepiece—the marine chronometer) was needed to determine a ship’s longitude (the ship’s east-west position).  Latitude (the ship’s north-south position) had been cracked early on, but longitude required the likes of Galileo, Robert Hooke, and a few others to figure it out.

Today, we take it for granted.  GPS makes time and position-determination very simple.  The balls, though, had long ago been replaced by radio-signals in the 1920s.  And of course they got it wrong.  Sailors “hacked” the time when the ball BEGAN to drop—New Yorkers hack it once the ball reaches the bottom.  Symbolic, no?

Is time on your mind? You may go here to read more about Zulu time, its history, importance, and misuse.

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