The Capital District’s Dudley Observatory is considered “the oldest non-academic institution of astronomical research in America.” Originally, it was located north-east of downtown Albany, NY.
Construction there began in 1852 and the facility was dedicated in 1857. Albany’s Congressman Erastus Corning, the founder and first president of the New York Central Railroad, was instrumental in donating a high quality telescope and time-keeping system at the new Dudley Observatory in Albany.
Each morning a worker started up a dynamo (generator) at the observatory and at exactly 12 noon he turned on an electrical switch that ran a wire to an electromagnet on top of a pole mounted on the roof of the Capitol Building in Albany. The energized electromagnet pulled up the metal ball. Every night at exactly midnight, the worker turned off the switch which caused the ball to drop.
One of these “time balls,” also controlled by the Dudley Observatory, was also mounted on the New York Central’s train station in the city of New York. It was important to the railroads that New York and Albany were on exactly the same time so that trains could run accurately.
Since few people at that time had watches and the pocket watches that existed usually showed a variety of times, it became traditional in both New York and Albany for partiers to go downtown on New Years Eve “to watch the ball drop.”
Ironically, it was the vibrations from train traffic that made the Albany location untenable and a new building was built in Schenectady. In 2019, the Observatory moved to Siena College in Loudonville, NY.
Photo: Dudley Observatory’s first building in Albany ca 1880.