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Why are we counting until the new year?

Few people mattered until the 1960s and 1970s – and yes, that included the New Year. Midnight celebrations and kisses on December 31 of course. Countdowns, no. How, then, did the countdown go from almost nonexistent to ubiquitous in the second half of the 20th century? And why are we so drawn to them now, especially to mark the end of one year and the start of another?

Countdowns as we know them today serve a number of purposes. The New Year’s countdown could be characterized as a “genesis countdown”: once the time is up, it starts all over again. Looking forward to the New Year – with its predictions, resolutions, and holidays – is usually uplifting, upbeat, and hopeful. But there are also “doomsday countdowns”, in which once the time is up, disaster ensues. Today we wonder how much time we have left before the next variant of COVID-19, natural disaster or terrorist attack. Both of these countdowns took shape during the Atomic Age.

Although disaster has always been a part of American life, the threat of nuclear annihilation has introduced pervasive existential fears. Notably, in 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists introduced the End of the world clock, which to date provides a visual calculation of the proximity of the apocalypse. In the years that followed, it was these same scientists who introduced the term “countdown” into the American lexicon. A 1953 San Francisco Examiner article reported on an atomic bomb test in the nearby Nevada desert: “A designated official over a loudspeaker and shortwave radio connection announces at intervals the time remaining before the explosion. . At the very end, he sings “minus 10 seconds, minus 5 seconds and minus 4 seconds” and so on until the moment of the explosion.

A few years later, Alfred Hitchcock domesticated the atomic countdown timer in the 1957 TV movie “Four O’Clock”, transplanting it into the basement of a suburban house wired with explosives minutes and seconds before the eponymous hour. 1950s TV countdowns, whether real or fictional, were frightening time experiences, in which time was stretched and stretched, then turned off.

But on May 5, 1961, the countdown got its first major positive association. Some 45 million Americans who watched the national evening news heard the countdown to the successful launch of the United States’ first manned space flight. Take off was followed by astronaut Alan Shepard who said, “Roger, take off and the clock has started. Time did not stand still, for the apocalyptic countdowns had threatened it; instead, a new clock started.

The countdown associated with rocket launches has its origins in the Weimar Republic, where Fritz Lang’s 1929 film “Woman in the Moon” featured a extended countdown at a lunar rocket launch. No one had ever heard or seen anything like the launch before – or the countdown. The lavish, multi-reel sci-fi film had a disproportionate impact on German rocket scientists, which after World War II became a central part of the US space program. One of the film’s advisers was space travel enthusiast Willy Ley, who later immigrated to the United States, where he worked for NASA, orchestrating its rocket launches.

With each televised rocket launch during the 1960s, the countdown accumulated increasingly positive associations with the public, preparing for the historic countdown and take off of Apollo 11, the spacecraft that carried a crew. of three men on the moon. The elements of the Countdown to Genesis as we know it today were made history on July 16, 1969, when at least 500 million people around the world tuned in to hear a loud countdown. and clear give way to an exciting, daring and transformative goal.

During the 1970s, the countdown shifted beyond atomic test sites and space missions and onto radio and television broadcasts – and away from the nihilism of a bomb attack to the triumph of a rocket launch. The popular Australian music show “Countdown”, which debuted in 1974, has inspired similar shows in the United States and Europe. Counting down to the last greatest success, these shows have slowed down the course of time and demarcated the recent past. Their pitch was not time, but rather ‘the top’ or ‘most popular’, organized sequentially and leading not to ‘zero’ but to ‘number one’. Other types of countdown programs have amplified the race against time. In the long-running British game show Countdown, for example, candidates try to solve word and number problems within a set amount of time. A very large analog clock, reminiscent of the Doomsday Clock, overlooks the setting of the show. In this iteration, the show’s triumphant contestants demonstrate that the race against time can be won – that is, disaster can be avoided.

The apocalyptic and genesis countdowns have finally given way to the ultimate festive countdown: that of the new year. Americans publicly celebrated the New Year in a variety of ways starting in the 1890s, including ringing bells (mostly in churches) at midnight. The first bullet fell on the roof of One Times Square to mark the arrival of 1908, and in the 1930s and 1940s commercial radio broadcasts announced the arrival of the New Year to rural and urban audiences at midnight. But the first countdown I identified was in the late 1950s. In the closing seconds of 1957, broadcaster Ben Grauer proclaimed to a national radio audience from a perch overlooking Times Square: “58 is en route, 5-4-3-2-1. The ball begins to slide down the post, and this is the signal that 58 is there. It hasn’t had much success: the existing recording features a cheering crowd but certainly isn’t counting down.

During the 1960s, Grauer tried to introduce New Year’s countdowns to television, presumably as a way to extend what was, after all, a very short-lived event. Yet even though you can hear the crowds cheering on these shows, they don’t join it in the countdown. Taking Grauer’s innovation, Dick Clark’s “New Year’s Rockin ‘Eve”, which debuted to host 1973, featured made-up countdowns that were staged on his dance party sets, and were at times painfully out of sync. with the Times Square bullet drop.

Also unbelievable, my research of existing radio and TV shows and newspaper articles shows that it was only seconds before 1979 arrived that a Times Square crowd counted down to the news. year. By then, it was clear that the countdown culture had arrived and was here to stay.

In the late 1980s, countdown clocks were installed in Times Square, TV graphics began to show time remaining until midnight, and TV hosts guided enthusiastic audiences through the countdown. As the year 2000 approached, however, something different happened. Millennium countdown clocks have proliferated across the world (although 2000 is not the millennium), accompanied by apocalyptic fears about the end times, or at the very least the year 2000, the epic network crash. much-discussed global computing.

The first two decades of the 21st century oscillated between genesis and doomsday countdowns; take for example, the Countdown to the Olympic Games and the last Climate clock, found online (and in Union Square in New York City) urging action before it’s too late. Countdown clocks for every conceivable event are everywhere today, from personalized ‘Countdown to Your Big Day’ digital clocks that can be integrated on social media feeds before your birthday to countdown clocks from the bus and metro that let everyone know when their trip will arrive. Whether personal or public, the clock aims to alleviate impatience, replace uncertainty with anticipation, and fill empty wait times with quantified temporality.

Today, our clocks and countdowns continue to oscillate between genesis and apocalypse. As 2021 gives way to 2022, it’s unclear what to expect when the clock strikes midnight. And so, I suspect that some countdowns this year will be tinged with hesitation and doubt. Yet many of us will want to join in the hope of the Genesis countdown, as will the Times Square crowd welcoming 1979 with their triumphant “Happy New Year” cheers – rejoicing when the clock starts again.

Alexis McCrossen is a faculty historian at Southern Methodist University who studies the history of timekeeping. Currently finishing a book on the history of New Years celebrations in the United States, she is also the author of books including Holy day, statutory holiday: American Sunday (2000) and Mark modern times: clocks, watches and other timepieces in American life (2013). This essay was published by Zocalo Public Square.


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