The bright ball that hovers over Times Square on New Year’s Eve is special this year. Sure, it’s iconic and colourful and mesmerising as it always is. This year, however, the ball will captivate us all with a brand new crystal coating. And, boy, is it pretty.
The ball drop has been a New Year’s Eve tradition in Times Square for over a hundred years, but only in the last decade or so has the ball itself become such a technological marvel. When former New York Times owner Adolph Ochs first organised the event atop the newspaper’s headquarters in 1907, the ball was made of iron and wood, weighed over 300kg, and was covered with 100 lightbulbs.
Over the years, it’s evolved beyond its iron origins in incredible ways. It got a lightweight aluminium frame in 1955 and computer controls (as well as rhinestones for more sparkle) in 1995. By the time the new millennium came around, it looked pretty steam punk.
The ball that sits atop the building today is the fifth generation, and it’s straight up space-age. Unveiled in 2008, the 4m wide geodesic sphere weighed 5386kg and featured 32,256 Philips Luxeon Rebel LEDs encased in 2688 individually sculpted Waterford crystals that vary in length from 12cm to 15cm.
This year, those crystals were completely redesigned and replaced, giving the ball a sleek and somehow more serene appearance. “The Gift of Imagination” is the theme that ties it all together, and it’s not hard to see why.
“The panels are cut on both sides to maximise the refraction or light,” Fred Curtis, master sculptor at Waterford, told Gizmodo. “It gives it a huge amount of colour. There are 16 million different colours with the LED lights, and, then, if you multiply that again with the rainbow effect of the crystal, it’s like a kaleidoscope.”
Curtis was on hand for the ball’s recent unveiling at One Times Square, the former home of the New York Times. The building that once hosted two dozen floors of writers and editors now serves simply as a pedestal for the Times Square ball. With the exception of a Walgreen’s pharmacy on the three ground floors and countless billboards on the outside, the ball and its operators are the building’s sole tenants.
The ball lives permanently on a pole rising up from the south side of the roof, some 230m above the ground. At that height, it’s built to withstand the elements. Curtis explained how Waterford brings in a team of engineers to help design the crystal pieces, that are then cut on a diamond-edged wheel. This year’s “Imagination” batch will be gradually replaced as 288 new pieces are designed, cut and installed every year for the next 10 years. Most of the 288 pieces that are removed will go to charity.
From start to finish, it takes a year to get these crystals ready for showtime, the 61 seconds it takes for the ball to drop. (For those counting, that’s 529 LEDs per second.)
Once they’re shipped to New York City, the individual crystals are attached to the triangular panels, each of which holds 48 LEDs — 12 red, 12 blue, 12 green and 12 white.
The panels are wired right into the ball’s computer system and screwed onto the frame.
Before midnight, the ball gets to strut its stuff atop the tower, producing its kaleidoscope of effects. And there it will wait, with a skyscraper at its feet, for 365 days until it’s time again.
Pictures: Adam Clark Estes, Matthew Carasella