The New Year's Eve tradition began when Alfred Adolph Ochs, the publisher of the New York Times, "successfully lobbied city leaders to change Longacre Square's name to Times Square":
[Ochs] resolved to throw a New Year's Eve celebration that would be the talk of the town. "An all-day street festival culminated in a fireworks display set off from the base of the tower," according to an official history published by the Times Square District Management Association, "and at midnight the joyful sound of cheering, rattles and noisemakers from the over 200,000 attendees could be heard, it was said, from as far away as Croton-on-Hudson, thirty miles north." An annual event was born — but two years later, the city prohibited the fireworks display. "Ochs was undaunted," the official history continues. "He arranged to have a large, illuminated seven-hundred-pound iron and wood ball lowered from the tower flagpole precisely at midnight to signal the end of 1907 and the beginning of 1908." Thus the origin of today's celebration.
(Photo: Workers install new Waterford Crystal triangles on the Times Square New Years Eve Ball at a media event on December 27, 2012 in New York City. The ball will once again descend a 141-foot tall flagpole to mark the beginning of 2013. By Mario Tama/Getty Images)