The New Year’s Eve ball in Times Square has long been a shining symbol of a new year and a fresh start. It is also a simple reminder for the entire world that when the clock strikes midnight, it’s time to party.
“There is no other event like this in America,” says Jeffrey Straus, president of Countdown Entertainment, the company that, with the Times Square Alliance, organizes the New Year’s Eve Celebration in New York City’s Times Square.
Straus estimates that more than 198 million Americans will be watching the ball drop from One Times Square come December 31.
“What’s truly incredible is that it’s the only time of the year where you have that many Americans doing the same thing at the same time, in unison, as we count down those final seconds of the year and watch that ball drop,” adds Straus.
What brings everyone together is the ball itself. Weighing 11,875 pounds and covered with 2,688 Waterford crystal triangles bolted to 672 LED modules, it is arguably the most distinct ball in the world. The 2017 Times Square ball will be outfitted with new Waterford crystal triangles that will display patterns designed to represent unity, kindness, wonder, resolve, and “the spirit necessary to triumph over adversity,” says Straus.
An Iron-and-Wood Ball
Despite its current crystal-covered splendor, the Times Square ball comes from relatively humble beginnings.
Many decades before the ball became the customary focus for the New Year’s celebration in New York City, New Yorkers would gather at Trinity Church in Wall Street to hear “the ringing out of the old and ringing in the new of the New Year” on Trinity’s bells.
That changed in 1904, when The New York Times moved from 41 Park Row by City Hall to Longacre Square, which would quickly be renamed Times Square in honor of the newspaper.
Adolph Ochs, then the publisher of the Times, orchestrated the first celebration in Times Square, using fireworks at midnight to ring in the New Year. But the fireworks proved dangerous for the city—“the hot ashes would rain down on the revelers below,” says Straus—and the city denied Ochs a fireworks permit.
People then could see this lighted ball for miles and miles, and it immediately attracted thousands of people.
So Ochs asked Walter Palmer, the chief electrician for the Times, to come up with a new concept, and he arrived at the idea of dropping a lighted ball from the top of the tower.
The inspiration for the first ball came from the Western Union Company building on Lower Broadway, which every day at noon had a metallic time ball that descended from the top of its spire. These time balls were part of a maritime tradition to help sailors at sea adjust their timepieces to local time.
“Palmer took this maritime tradition and combined it with a new technology, the electric light bulb, to create the lighted ball,” says Straus.
The first ball was a 700-pound sphere made of iron and wood and was lit by 100 25-watt bulbs. It was first used in 1907 and lowered down a flagpole—by “six guys with ropes and a stopwatch,” says Straus—from the top of One Times Square, at the time one of the tallest buildings in New York City.
“People then could see this lighted ball for miles and miles, and it immediately attracted thousands of people,” says Straus.
A second ball made of wrought iron would give way to a 150-pound aluminum ball in 1955. The ball remained largely unchanged until 1981, when organizers covered the ball with red lights and added a green stem to convert it into a giant apple as part of New York City’s “I Love New York” marketing campaign.
The aluminum ball was phased out in 1998 to give way to the millennium celebration in 1999 to 2000. It was then was redesigned by Philips Lighting and Waterford Crystal, using the latest in lighting and computer technologies.
“It was a great symbol of looking into the future for the next millennium, and it created this whole romance around with the crystal design,” says Straus.
A Modern Classic
In 2007, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Times Square Ball Drop, Waterford Crystal and Philips Lighting designed a new LED crystal ball. “It was double the brightness and 90 percent more energy efficient,” says Straus. The Centennial Ball was replaced the next year with a larger permanent ball that weighs nearly six tons and is illuminated by 32,256 Luxeon LED lights.
Today, Jamestown Properties, the owners of One Times Square, have the permanent ball perched atop the building all year round, partly as a tourist attraction but more so “as a symbol of hope,” says Straus.
“What brings us all together is that ball,” says Straus.