5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 the Millennium Ball

Dec. 2, 1999
The star of the show has a dazzling new look.

The 24-hr-long New Year’s Eve bash in New York’s Times Square will feature unprecedented satellite-fed, big-screen, globalwide pomp and pageantry. But at 1 min to midnight, as in previous years, all eyes will be on one thing — the glittering orb descending the flagpole atop One Times Square. This year, however, the star of the show has a dazzling new look, the fourth major change in its 91-yr history.

“The millennium ball is foremost a symbol of celebration,” explains Jeffrey Straus, president of Countdown Entertainment LLC, ball owner and event promoter. “But it must also be highly visible 390 ft in the air.” To meet both goals, Straus commissioned for the design lighting consultants Fisher Marantz Stone Inc. of New York City. The group chose a geodesic sphere patterned after the domes invented by scientist Buckminster Fuller in the late 40s. The structure’s complex, repeating network of triangles is said to signify the third millennium.

The design next went to Hudson Scenic Studio Inc. in the Bronx, a company specializing in Broadway-theater stagecraft. Roger Bardwell, the company’s mechanical designer, turned wireframe renderings into engineering drawings and CNC toolpaths. Outdoor lighting firm Landmark Signs & Maintenance Corp., New York City, helped build the ball’s all-aluminum spaceframe which consists of welded and bolted inner and outer subassemblies.

Inside is a maze of square tubing for structural support and lamp mounting. A two-piece annular ring though the center prevents side-to-side motion on the flagpole. Tubes flanking the ring house guide cables for additional stability.

The outer frame is strung with 0.75-in.-diameter tubing terminated into 90 separate nodes. The hexagon, pentagon, and hexa-penta-shaped nodes are CNC-machined from 0.125-in.-thick plate, laser cut, shaped, and welded to form the required curvature. Floating fasteners (to accommodate distortions) connect the outer pieces making a 6-ft-diameter sphere with 168 triangular frames. Unlike a conventional geodesic sphere, however, the frames are flat rather than curved.

That’s because each frame receives a clear polycarbonate plate adorned with three handcrafted, triangular-shaped Waterford crystals. Although the Waterford looks like ordinary crystal, “It is specially formulated and annealed to withstand thermal and mechanical stresses caused by lamp heating and chilling winter winds,” explains Jim O’Leary, master designer at Waterford Crystal in Ireland. A clever mounting arrangement further helps it survive the elements.

Each of the 508 crystals attach at the center with a single stainless bolt and plastic spacer. Molded-in standoffs on crystal backsides allow relative motion between CTE-mismatched crystal and plastic. The standoffs also let air pass through the ball which lowers temperature gradients and reduces wind buffeting, another major concern. To make sure crystal segments stay put, the mounting was wind-tunnel tested to 100 mph. A computer simulated wind interactions between the assembled ball and surrounding buildings, also to 100 mph. “It’s the first time crystal will be used outdoors under such conditions,” claims O’Leary. “It was a technical challenge requiring some 30 engineers to solve.”

Still, the crystal is as much a work of art as a feat of engineering. O’Leary’s “Star of Hope” design consists of a central circle representing Earth and a seven-pointed star depicting the seven continents. Deep wedge cuts surrounding the star symbolize the diversity of humanity and the millennium event’s global focus.

The crystal adds an elegant touch, but lights are what make it shine. At the center of each of the 168 polycarbonate panels is a clear, 60-W Halogena 2000 halogen bulb from Philips Lighting Co., of Somerset, N.J. Philips designed and hand-built the faceted bulbs specifically to highlight the crystal. The interior of the ball is illuminated with 208 more of the clear bulbs (sans the special facets), 224 nonhalogen, colored “party” bulbs (56 each of red, blue, green, and yellow), and 96 high-intensity strobes, bringing lamp count to 696, more than double that of the old ball.

Capping it off are 92 movable, mirrored pyramids on the exterior to bounce light in all directions, much like a mirror ball on a dance floor. Each pyramid connects to an individually addressed stepper motor programmable for rotation in either direction or dithering. The result of all this will be a spectacular, rainbowlike, kaleidoscope effect, predicts New York City lighting supplier Con Edison.

“The lights and mirror motors require 106 electrical circuits, enough for a major Broadway production,” says David Rosenfeld, electrical designer at Hudson. Standard 12-circuit stage cable (12-awg wire, 37 conductor) is sufficient for most jobs, but the millennium ball would require 10 of these cables (80 ft long) weighing about 1,432 lb total — more than the ball itself. “Besides, stage cable tends to stiffen in the cold and the heavy-gauge wire is overkill for some of the circuits,” adds Rosenfeld.

The solution was a highly flexible, lightweight cable from Olflex Wire and Cable, Fairfield, N.J. The cable is available in a range of wire gauges making it tailorable to circuit loads. “The entire 10-cable harness weighs just 240 lb,” says Rosenfeld. Moreover, the cable remains supple even at low temperatures, important because it dangles below and coils up on itself as the ball lowers. A dark-colored zipper sheath helps protect the cable from abrasion and hides it from the cameras. The other end of the cable connects to a computer for controlling the lights and mirror motors. “All systems are Y2K compliant,” assures Rosenfeld.

After circuits have been checked and rechecked, the 1,310 lb (approximately, including cable) ball will be disassembled for shipment. The outer section separates into three pieces and the inner, two pieces. The arrangement eases installation on the flagpole, but more importantly, lets the ball fit through a 32-in.-wide door leading to the top of One Times Square.

Once on the roof, the reassembled ball will hook to a 10-hp gearmotor/brake via two braided steel cables guided by sheaves at the pole top and bottom. The drivetrain will hoist the ball 77 ft to its 390-ft-high perch. “If the mechanism fails on the big night, the ball lowers manually with a hand crank,” says Bardwell.

Over 1.5 million people are expected at New York’s Times Square this New Year’s Eve, three times the usual crowd. Over 1 billion more will tune in at home making it the most watched event in television history, surpassing the Apollo 11 moon landing. Still others will participate via a special Internet Web site.

At 23:59:00 EST, the countdown will begin. Simultaneously, a yet-to-be-disclosed special guest will push a button lowering the millennium ball 77 ft in 1 min to mark the start of the year 2000 in North America.

The tradition of lowering a ball to mark time started in 1829 in Portsmouth, England, but was made famous beginning in 1833 at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, when mariners sailing the River Thames needed a visual time standard for synchronizing ship’s clocks. Nearly every day since then, a bright red ball positioned atop the Observatory’s Flamsteed House drops at exactly 13:00:00 GMT. One hour past noon was chosen to give astronomers there time to measure the sun passing over the prime meridian (0° longitude).

The Times Square celebration actually dates back to 1904 when fireworks signaled midnight’s arrival. But setting off fireworks in the middle of a city wasn’t such a good idea, so a ball drop replaced the pyrotechnics four years later. The first ball, devised by then New York Times electrician Walter Palmer, was made of iron and wood and dotted with 100, 25-W light bulbs to showcase the invention of electrical power. Palmer apparently got the idea from the clock at Union Square which had an iron ball that dropped at noontime. In 1920, a lighter (400 versus 700 lb) ball of iron replaced the old one and then in 1955 a lightweight, aluminum- framed globe supplanted it. The past 40 or so years saw only lighting upgrades including computer-controlled strobes added in the early 90s bringing lamp count to 324 (180 lights and 144 strobes). The improvements made the old ball more eyecatching, but the new millennium ball will easily outshine it.

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