Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

You Know You’re Going to Watch It: All About the Times Square Ball

Most days, I work in midtown Manhattan, just a few blocks from where the ball drops. Yes, that ball. The Times Square Ball.

When I first moved to New York 15 years ago, for a few years during the holiday season I’d be asked by people from elsewhere if I’d be among the throngs in the Times Square crowd, watching and cheering as the ball drops. I’ve never done it, and I probably never will. I dislike crowds and I dislike standing in one place for hours on end with nothing to do but cheer. And the Times Square area is, for me, my work environment, and during the holidays I’d rather be at home, which for me means uptown and out of the way.

I’ve worked in Rockefeller Center, mere blocks from Times Square, for about six years now, and watched as the size and density of the crowds of visiting tourists have seemed to increase incrementally during the holiday season each year.

It wasn’t my imagination. New York City’s own official statisticians say that 48.8 million people visited the city in 2010, up from fewer than 43 million in 2005 when I became a Midtown regular. The forecast for 2011 is 50.2 million. Assuming the forecast is correct, the city will have beat by four years Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s goal, set in 2008, of attracting 50 million visitors by 2015. These same statisticians say that one out of every three international visitors to the United States comes to New York City.

And that ball has a lot to do with it. It’s said that 1 billion people will watch the ball drop in Times Square tonight on television. This I usually watch, and not because I’m a Ryan Seacrest fan. But for some reason that makes little logical sense, I enjoy seeing the part of the city where I spend so much of my daily life being enjoyed by so many people. I like seeing my adopted home town being the center of the world’s attention.

So what about that ball? It was replaced last year, and has some pretty impressive specifications. As Scientific American tells it, it is 12 feet in diameter and weighs nearly six tons, or 11,875 pounds.

It’s made up of 2,688 Waterford crystal triangles, and is lit by 32,256 Philips Luxeon LED lights, which is apparently triple the number of lights on the ball last year. All those lights — and being LEDs they’re programmable — are capable of producing 16 million colors, with the number of theoretical combinations numbering in the billions. It’s also more energy efficient — by somewhere between 10 to 20 percent — than it was last year, and consumes about the same amount of power as is required to power two typical electric home ovens. For the geekier minded among you, there’s even more to know in this article in PDF format from something called Lighting Science. It hadn’t occurred to me, for instance, that since the ball is on display year-round that it would require significant cooling during the hotter days of summer.

It has come a long way from the original ball in 1907, which had 120 25-watt light bulbs on it. There’s a picture of one from 1978 included with this long history of the whole ball-dropping tradition.

If you’re in or around Times Square in the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, and have the presence of mind to look up, you can probably see one of many test drops of the ball. I found this Associated Press video covering one such test, via the Village Voice.

And if you’re not near a TV, you can of course catch a live stream of the festivities.

Happy New Year, everyone.

(Image of the 2007-vintage ball via Wikipedia.)


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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald