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The Ball of Time

Possibly you have heard about it, maybe you’ve actually seen it live, the dropping of the Ball as the traditional celebration of New Year’s Eve in New York City. In short, what happens is that at 11:59pm a huge ball is descended from the flagpole on top of One Times Square. When the process is completed, a new year has begun, and a lot of people celebrate. Of course, America would not be America, if it wasn’t a little glitz and glam. The current Times Square Ball is “covered with a total of 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles that vary in size”, these crystals are illuminated by 32,256 Philips Luxeon Rebel LEDs of varying colours. To accommodate for all these sparkles, the ball is 12 feet in diameter (3.7 meters), and weighs a shabby 11,875 pounds (which equals to roughly 5,387 kilos). However, there was a time that the ball was not quite as Hollywoodized as it is now.

The notion of dropping a ball to signal the passing of time is an English invention. At the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, a time ball was installed in 1833. It was descended every day at 1pm to allow the Captains to align their chronometers to the right time. Due to its success in Greenwich, over 150 of the time balls were installed worldwide. Hardly any survived, and of those that have, none actually still operate.

In New York, the ball dropping started in 1907 (or 1908, depending on your point of view). Though New Year’s Eve had been celebrated as early as 1904 in the Big Apple, the ball made its appearance a little later. That it made its appearance at all and consequently became one of America’s most celebrated traditions, is due to Adolph Ochs. Essentially, Ochs put the New York Times on the map. He is given the credit of reforming the paper into what it still is today: a leader in the market of journalism. But, there’s more, Ochs convinced the city to name Times Square, Times Square, after the paper that was housed in the (at that time) second tallest building of New York: One Times Square. And still, Ochs wanted more. So, to celebrate New Year’s Eve whilst simultaneously showing off how well he and his paper were doing, he had a time ball constructed out of wood and iron. The ball was 5 feet (1.5 meters) in diameter; it was electrically lit by a 100 25-watt light bulbs, and weighed 700 pounds (320 kilos). As you can see, not quite as fancy as the current Times Ball but, for its day and age, quite innovative. It is believed the first ball descended a second late, but this could not spoil the fun. Ochs, with his Times Ball created a new way of celebrating New Year’s in New York. Where at first, the celebration had been focussed on the Trinity Church, as of 1907, Times Square became the new place to be.

The tradition thus began, and it has not skipped a year, or did it? Americans like to say no, but technically, the Times Ball was prohibited for 2 years in a row. Not because of anything it did, or its organisers had done, but due to the Second World War. In 1942 and 1943, in fear of being targeted by the enemy, there was a “dim-out” at night in New York City. However, almost like a “throwback Thursday” the celebration continued in the style of the good old days. The crowds still gathered in Times Square and greeted the New Year with a minute of silence followed by the ringing of chimes from sound trucks parked at the base of the tower at One Times Square, resounding the earlier celebrations at Trinity Church, where crowds would gather to “ring out the old and ring in the new”. Although the celebration didn’t stop, the Times Ball was absent. Luckily, this minor glitch in tradition did not disband the whole of it.

There have been a total of 5 Times Balls. In a way, the progress of technique, materials, and other processes involved in fabricating a huge (relatively useless) ball, can be traced by looking at the different designs of the Times Balls. As said before, the first ball was not particularly fancy (though it would’ve been for the time of fabrication). The 1907 ball remained in use until 1920, when an iron-wrought 400 pounds (181.5 kilos) ball replaced the wooden one. This one was replaced in 1955 by an aluminium ball, which weighed only half of its iron-wrought predecessor. This aluminium ball would remain the core for all the celebrations until 1998, be it with some tweeks and twerks. In the ‘80s the ball’s traditional white light was replaced by greens and reds to create a huge glowing apple. You guessed it; this was because of New York’s establishment as the Big Apple in their advertisement campaign of the time. After 1988, however, the ball was stripped of all colour again and remained white until 1995 when it was upgraded with computer panels, rhinestones, and strobes. A mere 3 years later, the ball would be lowered for the last time. A wholly new ball was designed for the turn of the century (the year 2000). According to the designer, the ball showed commemoration for the past whilst looking forward to the future. Though it is highly unlikely that the million people that came to Times Square that year were able to see all the details in the ball’s design (it being quite high up and far away). This fourth ball weighed 1,070 pounds (490 kilos) and was 6 feet (1.8 meters) in diameter. In 2008, Waterford Crystal designed a new ball which is still in use; it is equipped with the latest technology and bling (as said before). The cost of this new masterpiece? Only 2 million dollars, but to make up for that, it is for the first time in its history that the ball is on permanent display on top of One Times Square.

by Rena Bood