On top of the world: A visit to the Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball

Each year on the evening of December 31st an estimated one million people from around the world flock to New York City’s Times Square to cheer in unison as the final 10 seconds of the year are counted down and the iconic glowing ball is lowered down a 130-foot pole from atop 1 Times Square. BGR recently attended the Philips Ball Test, during which the city does a dry run of the ceremonies that will take place seconds before midnight on New Year’s Eve. We had a chance to sit down with Jeff Straus, the president of Countdown Entertainment and one of the producers who has overseen the event for the past 17 years, and Ed Crawford, the CEO of Philips Lighting, which provides the bulbs for the New Year’s Eve ball. We also had a chance to walk up and see the ball in person, and learn about how the whole process works from the beginning down to the second when a switch is flipped and the ball begins its descent.

Why does the ball drop in Times Square?

Jeff Straus is an expert when it comes to all things surrounding the New Year’s Eve ball, and it was immediately apparent how passionate he is about the topic we were discussing. New York City has been celebrating New Year’s Eve in Times Square since 1904, Straus explained during an interview in his office. It all started when The New York Times held a celebration for the official opening of its brand new Manhattan headquarters.

“Previously the celebration was held down at Trinity Church,” Straus explained. “And they would be very raucous and the church elders were really very happy to have the celebration moved uptown. People would throw bricks in the air and they would hit people in the head. It was a crazy celebration.”

So why was it moved to, what was formerly known as, the Times Building? “It was the second tallest building from ground level up at the time and the New York Times could get their papers in and out to their readership downtown,” Straus said. “So they had this corporate promotion to announce that they were here in the new Times Square. For several years they would launch fireworks from the top of the building, and the hot ashes would rain down on people’s heads,” he added, noting the city’s decision to switch to the maritime tradition of lowering a ball. “They matched it with the latest technology, electricity, with a lighted time ball that would be lowered at midnight,” Straus added. “This being the tallest building in the area, it attracted hundreds of thousands of people to Times Square. That tradition has gone on for 107 years and there are only two years when the ball didn’t drop, ’42 and ’43 during the dim-out.”

The first ball was tiny — just 6 feet in diameter — and made of iron. It was covered in 100 25-watt incandescent light bulbs and weighed 700 pounds. In the 1920s, a new ball was made out of iron and wood and, in the 1950s, yet another one was created out of aluminum and covered with 180 incandescent light bulbs. In the 1980s New York swapped the white lights for red bulbs, put a stem on it and called it “The Apple.”

Then, in 1995, the city of New York City ditched the old pulley and stopwatch system, which was controlled by hand, and began upgrading the system’s technology as well as the entire operation behind it. “We added GPS, computer controls and an atomic clock,” Straus said, smiling. “We have a GPS locating device up there, it’s all synced with computer programming down to the second. It’s amazing.”

Then, in 1999 to mark the change of the millennium, Waterford and Philips stepped in and created the first crystal ball with halogen lights. That was yet again upgraded in 2007 to a ball with LED lights that offered double the brightness of the halogen ball before it. “The very next year we build this big ball we have today,” Straus noted. “It’s 11,875 pounds, it has 32,256 Philips Luxcon LED lights and 2,668 Waterford crystal triangles. So we made this huge change from incandescent, to halogen, to LED to really show the future of lighting changes. It’s the largest crystal ball in the world.”

New York City doesn’t just use the ball on New Year’s Eve, either. It’s decorated for several holidays throughout the year, including Christmas Eve, Earth Day, Father’s Day and Valentines Day. “For mother’s day I put ‘I ♥ Mom on it,'” Straus said laughing. “What’s even more fun is since the ball is something we all grow up with, the ball now Tweets,” Straus said, reminiscing about the history of the ball and detailing its fictional “mother and father.” The father is a medicine ball and the mother is a globe, according to the joke. Straus then took us up to get an up-close look at the ball and get a few shots of what it’s like on top of Times Square.

Visiting the Ball

I felt like I was entering a secret back entrance on my way up to see the ball. In fact, the elevator up to it is in public view inside a Walgreens at 1 Times Square. After a quick trip to the 21st floor where I could see out over the whole of Times Square from Straus’s offices, I had to walk just three and a half more flights to get outside to where the ball is. Then, right in front of me, it sat there glowing.

Straus and Crawford were kind enough to raise and lower the ball several times so that we could grab photos of the entire process. If you’ve never seen it up close, the two men simply count down and then flick a giant Philips light switch, and the ball begins to drop. But there’s much more behind the scenes than what you might see on television. In fact, there’s a whole crew at the bottom of the ball, outside, making sure everything goes smoothly.

“We actually have five guys now. We lost the stopwatch guy, but we still need the guys to handle all of the cabling,” Straus explained. “The ball goes up and with it the same kind of robotic cabling that you see in automobile factories. It’s for the computer controls, but they have to, by hand, manually make sure it doesn’t get tied up, or cinched, or clinched, so they’re there to make sure it goes smoothly.”

Under the ball, back inside 1 Times Square, there’s also a computer control room. We had a chance to peek inside — it’s especially busy this time of year — and saw a number of Toshiba laptops, servers and more. “There’s a gentleman there that actually sits in front of a computer screen and he can program the ball just like you’d program anything,” Strauss explained. “You’ve got 16 billion colors, billions of patterns, it’s a whole system. We used to have a big lighting board, now we do everything on a laptop.”

Philips’s lighting technology inside the ball

“Philips has been involved with the ball for 12 years,” Phillips Lighting CEO Ed Crawford said. “We first got involved with the ball in 1999 for the millennium drop. At that time, the Times Square Alliance wanted to create something spectacular for 1999 to 2000. At the time halogen was the latest lighting technology. The ball you see today is revolutionary. Each LED is individually programmed and the Waterford crystal is a shell that creates the sparkle and special effect. LED’s can do things that were impossible before and are more energy efficient.”

Crawford also explained that his team worked closely with Countdown Entertainment, the group in charge of the whole event, as well as outside vendors to create the ball. But what makes the LEDs inside the New Year’s Eve ball different from the ones consumers see every day?

“In some ways the LEDs are the same, but I wouldn’t compare them to Christmas tree lights,” Crawford explained. “There’s really two levels of LEDs. There are LEDs in Christmas tree lights and in the dashboard of your car and things like that. Those are what we call low-power LEDs. In the Times Square ball, there are high-power factor Philips Luxcon LEDs that are extremely bright and extremely energy efficient.”

The CEO continued, “From a consumer standpoint, consumers have gotten used to the idea that wattage equates to light. Wattage has nothing to do with light. So a 60-watt light bulb means it uses 60 watts of energy. It doesn’t generate 60 watts of light. This light bulb in my hand generates 850 lumens, which is the measure of light and the same amount of a 60 watt standard incandescent bulb, but it only uses 12 watts to do it.”

Until next year

I have to admit, I’m slightly afraid of heights so standing under the ball on the roof was a bit daunting and I was happy to get back inside the building. Still, I’ve watched the ball drop on New Year’s Eve every year of my life and it was surprisingly heartwarming to be so close to it. Even with my fear of heights, I would visit this facility again in a second.

On the way down, I stopped on the 5th floor of 1 Times Square, where a dozen or so workers were busy blowing up more than 25,000 balloons that will be distributed on Saturday night.

Whether you’ll be down in the crowd or watching on your TV, in the viewer below or on an iPhone or Android handset, we hope you’ll enjoy seeing the ball drop even more now that you know a bit more about the process, the operation and the great people who work hard all year long to make sure it all goes off without a hitch.

We also hope you all have a happy new year.

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