It is one of the nation’s most festive and anticipated traditions. Since 1907, throngs have crowded into Times Square in New York City to see just one thing: the legendary ball drop. It seems like such a simple and elegant thing. In many ways it is but the idea and the technology needed to pull it off goes back even further than 110 years.
Today, the dropping of the mighty ball is viewed live by over a billion people around the world. It marks the time. It sparks the memories. It ignites hopes and dreams for the future. The next dropping of the ball is a marvel of modern technology. It is a 12,000 pound glittering sphere with a geodesic shaped skeleton of pure aluminum. Covering the amazing structure are 32,000 diodes that shriek brilliant kaleidoscope light as well as exquisitely cut pure crystal in the shape of geometrically perfect wedges created by the Waterford Company for the 2000 drop. And, to make the spectacle even more technologically perfect, the ball is slowly lowered to the perfect time kept by an atomic clock nestled in the mountains of Colorado.
Time balls, of a sort, came into existence in Europe and the United States of America in the early part of the 1800’s. This was long before time zones were created and each little corner of the world kept its own track of linear time. In The United States, time was reckoned by the movement of Earth around the sun. The first official ball drop occurred in Portsmouth, England in 1829 and was initiated to help mariners keep accurate time while at sea. Several time balls were located at various places around the world by 1845. Setting chronometers to the correct time via these time balls was a tricky affair but the best tech they had for the times.
Soon, time balls were everywhere. Even in such inland places as Kansas City. Time balls became hugely popular with people and, in 1877, one was installed in Manhattan at the Western Union headquarters. When the owner of the New York Times, in 1896, Adolph Ochs, decided to move the ball, he chose an intersection located at Seventh Avenue, Broadway and 42nd Street. He even, in 1904, got the mayor of New York, Civil War general George McClellan, to go along with Ochs’ idea to rechristen the area as Times Square in honor of his newspaper.
Later that year, Ochs decided to steal some of Wall Street’s New Year’s Eve thunder. People had generally gathered in Wall Street to listen to church bells. Ochs decided to lure the masses with a gigantic fireworks display and the idea worked brilliantly. Ochs continued with his newly established tradition until the NYC politicians decided not to give him a fireworks permit in 1907.
Undeterred, Ochs decided to drop a time ball from a flagpole at midnight. He had a giant, 700 pound globe, built from wood and iron and covered the huge ball with about one hundred 25 watt light bulbs. They then, using a pulley system and manual labor, had it lowered ever so slowly so as it hit the ground exactly at midnight.
That was pretty much the extent of the technology until 1995. Using “six guys with a rope and a stopwatch” was a commonly heard phrase for the ball dropping technology. This New Year’s Eve, 2017 will be ushered in with the magnificent ball slowly descending for seventy feet in sixty seconds and all synchronized by that laser cooled atomic clock in the wilds of Colorado.
PHOTO CREDIT: Chester Higgins, Jr. / The New York Times
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