The Tech In The Times Square Ball

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Millions watch the Times Square Ball drop every New Year's Eve. Not many realize just how much that ball has changed since the party started in 1907.

A century ago, the ball was a 5-foot diameter, 700-pound sphere covered in 100 light bulbs and made of wood and iron. At the time, the big ball represented relatively new technology in lighting. But in the 1920s it with one made of iron, and in 1955 it was changed to aluminum. The traditional lights weren’t radically altered until 1995, when a computer was added to control the strobe lights. The only years the ball wasn't lit were 1942 and 1943, when the lights in New York were “dimmed out” during World War II.

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The new one is twice the size –- 12 feet across –- and weighs 11,875 pounds. The roof of the building that houses it has had to be reinforced a few times over the years. Instead of the original 25-watt bulbs used overall, the ball now has light emitting diodes. There are a total of 32,256 LEDs in red, blue, green and white. That allows for all kinds of colors and patterns, and is a lot more energy efficient than the 1907 version. Philips Lighting, the company that makes the LEDs, says the bulbs use 140,000 kilowatt hours of energy, 80 percent less than the old ones, which at up 1.1 million kilowatt-hours.

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The control systems for the ball, from Paderborn, Germany-based e:cue, allow for controlling even single LED, which means that any pixel-based pattern can be created on its surface. The software can render video on the ball, similar to the LED patterns used in the billboards that line the square.

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Then there are the 2,688 Waterford crystal triangles that make up the sphere (a geodesic for the mathematically incline). Waterford has worked four themes into them this year: “Let There Be Love,” “Let There Be Courage,” "Let There Be Joy" and "Let There Be Light." The crystal is designed to stand up to the stresses of temperature (the average is about 33 degrees Fahrenheit on Dec. 31). Unfortunately most people won’t be able to see them from the ground, but one of the bloggers at Dvice posted a nice gallery of close-ups photos.

The ball was modeled after time balls, which are placed on the tops of buildings visible to sailors and dropped at a predetermined time (usually noon or 1 p.m.). Sailors had to keep accurate time to determine longitudes. Adolph Ochs, who had bought the New York Times back in 1896, wanted a suitably large celebration to mark the paper’s new headquarters at One Times Square (which was called Longacre Square before then). So he came up with the ball drop and fireworks show, which continues today.

In 1904, Ochs’ newspaper was the first to receive a wireless dispatch from a reporter (the story was the Russian Fleet’s defeat at the hands of the Japanese). So he’d probably appreciate the fact that his original idea for ringing in the new year has kept up with the latest technology. Raise a glass to him.

Via: Dvice, Times Square Alliance, Philips

Image: Philips Lighting

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