On Saturday, millions will crowd around televisions to watch the most famous New Year's Eve celebration in the world. The ball drop at Times Square in New York has become a universally recognized symbol of an annual new beginning. It was all the idea of a former Knoxvillian.
Adolph Ochs was the son of Bavarian Jewish immigrants. His parents, Julius and Bertha Levy Ochs, had immigrated after the catastrophic European revolutions of the 1840s, and lived in Knoxville before the Civil War. As war approached, they moved to Cincinnati, where Adolph was born. They moved back to Knoxville near the end of the war, and his father Julius at first prospered as a merchant. They lived in a large house on Sharps Ridge. Julius Ochs was a prominent citizen, a justice of the peace, and a leader of the Radical Republican Party. He helped found Knoxville's first synagogue, Temple Beth-El. But after an economic collapse in 1867, the Ochses had to move into a small, cheap place downtown, on Central Street, and the sons had to go to work. Adolph, the oldest, got a job with the local Republican newspaper, the Knoxville Chronicle, which was then located on Market Square. There's probably no trace of the original 1860s-70s building where he worked, but it was near the location of Scruffy City Hall. He began as a paperboy, and after a promotion, because a "printer's devil"--and apprentice printer.
At the time, it's not obvious that Knoxville celebrated New Year's Eve, but a week earlier, the city did celebrate Christmas, in a big way, with fireworks.
Adolph worked his way up, even doing a little writing and rewriting, and eventually familiarized himself with all the jobs involved in putting out a newspaper. By the time he was 19, he was pretty sure he could run a paper himself. Knoxville was overloaded with newspapermen, but Adolph heard about a struggling newspaper in Chattanooga called the Chattanooga Times. With the help of some investors, he bought it, and hired several members of his Knoxville family to come help him run it--including his father--and he turned it into a very successful newspaper.
In 1896, Adolph heard another failing newspaper called the New York Times was for sale. He bought that one, too, and using his experience in Knoxville and Chattanooga, made it a very successful newspaper, adding features like the book review and the weekly magazine. He gave it a new motto, borrowed from his cousins in Knoxville, the Blaufelds, who ran a successful cigar shop on Gay Street. All the Seegars that are Fit to Smoke, they said. So he wrote "All the News That's Fit to Print," and it became the motto of his new paper.
He changed the newspaper, and he changed the map of Manhattan. He moved the Times to an intersection of Broadway and Seventh that had been known--and mainly just in New York--as Longacre Square. It was a busy, but not famous place. Ochs persuaded the city to give it its own subway stop. (By the way, another former Knoxvillian was influential in subway development at that time: William Gibbs McAdoo, who had introduced electric streetcars to Knoxville in 1890, was then working on the first subway under the Hudson River.)
In 1904, Ochs renamed it Times Square, after his new newspaper.
Ochs liked the idea of celebrating a holiday in a big public way, to promote the Times, and to promote New York, and he wanted to celebrate a holiday that was a holiday for everybody. He picked New Years Eve, and originally celebrated the arrival of midnight with fireworks. When that drew complaints--in fact, fireworks were banned in New York--in 1907, Ochs opted for a quieter solution, based on a method of signaling ships in the harbor. They'd lower a giant electrically lit ball along a rooftop mast. In an era when electric lights were still fairly new, seeing them move was an astonishing sight.
In the right mood, it still is. What happens on Times Square on Saturday night, and what happens there every year, reflects a career that began on Market Square. Happy New Year.