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Four, three, two, one... Where does the countdown come from?

ByAnesha George
Sep 30, 2023 08:30 PM IST

It has links to an early sci-fi film, atom-bomb tests, the space age. It’s now on apps, alerts, clocks tracking the climate crisis. And it’s still evolving

Every year, for well over a century, the exact second of the New Year’s arrival has been signalled by a countdown and a ball drop at Times Square in New York City.

(Clockwise from top) A climate clock in London in June; the annual ball drop at Times Square, New York, on January 1, 2022; an atom-bomb test in Nevada, in 1957; space shuttle Columbia takes off in 1981. (Getty Images, Wikimedia Commons) PREMIUM
(Clockwise from top) A climate clock in London in June; the annual ball drop at Times Square, New York, on January 1, 2022; an atom-bomb test in Nevada, in 1957; space shuttle Columbia takes off in 1981. (Getty Images, Wikimedia Commons)

The practice of lowering a time ball to broadcast the precise time to passing ships can be traced to 1833, when a public time signal was installed atop the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London. Every day, a bright red ball would drop at the stroke of 1 pm (it still does), so ships on the Thames could calibrate their chronometers.

The Times Square December 31 tradition is traceable to 1907, and has found echoes around the world. There are public countdowns with fireworks over the Sydney Harbour Bridge; at the Big Ben in London, alongside tolling bells; at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, amid a dramatic light show.

But where did the countdown come from? As it turns out, the chanting of numbers in backward order at Times Square on New Year’s Eve only began in the late 1970s. And why that is, makes for an interesting tale.

The earliest instance of the countdown in popular culture can be traced to Austrian filmmaker Fritz Lang, and the sci-fi classic Woman in the Moon (1929). Physicist Hermann Oberth, who would go on to work with NASA and be considered a founding father of rocketry and astronautics, was a scientific advisor on the film.

One scene depicted a rocket launch. It started with a slide that said “20 seconds to go! Take a deep breath” and was intercut with visuals of eager humans, a series of countdown slides from 5 to 1 and a lift-off that coincided with “NOW!” In the absence of sound, the numbers served to ramp up excitement in viewers.

By the 1930s, as retail music sales picked up via shellac and vinyl, radio shows began to broadcast the top tunes of the week, in reverse order, building anticipation again. (The early lists, for those wondering, were topped by names such as The Dorsey Brothers, Ruth Etting and Fred Astaire).

In the 1940s, the countdown as we know it entered the mainstream news cycle. But it was now associated with a very different mood. This was the decade of World War 2 and the atomic bomb tests. Some of these tests were broadcast on the radio and, by the early 1950s, on television.

It was a countdown, literally, to disaster, Alexis McCrossen, an author and history professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, has said. McCrossen’s research looks at the past through the lens of the importance, measurement and recognition of time, and she notes that it was only in the 1960s that the countdown in popular culture became a thing of joy.

It came to be associated with one of humankind’s greatest quests: the space missions. Via the launch of rocket ships. By 1961, the countdown had beamed into homes via TV screens, as the Mercury, the US’s first crewed spacecraft, took off. In 1969 came the Apollo 11 moon-landing mission. That was a genesis of sorts, McCrossen says.

By the 1970s, the backwards chant was associated with celebrations, and by the end of that decade, with New Year’s Eve.

This countdown took on a new intensity by the 1980s, as some clocks began counting down to… the new millennium. One such clock appeared on the facade of Paris’s Center Pompidou in that decade. It inspired the Chinese to install a clock of their own, in Tiananmen Square, in 1994 — except, theirs counted down to the return of Hong Kong by the British, in 1997.

Today, countdown clocks are set and reset for sporting events such as the Olympic Games.

And they’re taking on a dire tone again, amid the climate crisis. Monumental Climate Clocks in public spaces in New York, Glasgow, Seoul and Berlin serve as urgent reminders that the window within which we must achieve zero emissions, or cross a point of no return, is closing. (Currently, the time left on the clock is less than six years.)

Countdowns have also become increasingly personalised, with clocks ticking off months and days to milestones such as weddings and graduations, or to the last minute before a meal or a ride arrives at one’s doorstep.

There has been a shift from excitement to utility, in the hyper-consumerist and digital age. There is the countdown to the release of a new phone, videogame or shopping festival. The countdown to the day when one must rotate one’s tyres. Hyperactive news channels have begun to countdown to “explosive new statement by xyz in response to abc”.

“Countdowns, today, are used as marketing gimmicks,” says Ambi Parameswaran, author and independent brand coach, “aimed at brand loyalists to create anticipation, urgency, sometimes even a sense of false shortage.”

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