NEW YORK — Walter Fuhrman Palmer, the head electrician at the New York Times more than 100 years ago, helped to create a legacy shared by tens of millions of people who have jammed Times Square on New Year’s Eve to celebrate the traditional countdown to the New Year.
Palmer, who lived in Warren, N.J., designed the first giant sphere to drop on Times Square, the beginning of a tradition that will celebrate its 110th anniversary this New Year’s Eve, according to his great nephew, former Somerset County Freeholder Peter Palmer.
While he never spoke directly with his great uncle about his design, it was common knowledge within the family. “Walter’s nephew was my grandfather, I saw him at family functions a number of times,” Palmer recalled.
One of the last times Palmer saw his great uncle was at his grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary..“I was a teenager at the time, and he was in his 80s,” he said.
The ball designed by Palmer was made of iron and wood and weighed 700 pounds and was 5 feet in diameter; its surface was a weave of wires and sockets, lit by 100 25-watt bulbs. It was built according to Palmer's specifications by a young immigrant metalworker named Jacob Starr, and for most of the 20th century the company he founded, sign maker Artkraft Strauss, was responsible for lowering the ball.
At midnight, December 31, 1907, Palmer's New Year's Eve ball made its maiden descent, lowered by a crew of six men using pulleys attached to the re-purposed mainmast of a United States battleship.
Peter Palmer doesn’t know for certain whether his great uncle was there to watch his creation launch the New Year, but his guess is that he was.
“The great shout that went up drowned out the whistles for a minute,” the New York Times reported at the time. “The vocal power of the welcomers rose above even the horns and the cow bells and the rattles. Above all else came the wild human hullabaloo of noise.”
The New York Times had constructed the building at 1 Times Square as its headquarters in 1904, and staged a massive New Year's Eve fireworks display to celebrate its opening. The newspaper’s owner, Adolph Ochs, so enjoyed the spectacle that he followed up in 1905 and 1906, but in 1907, the New York City Police Department banned fireworks.
Ochs turned to Palmer to come up with an alternative.
Palmer's idea came from an old maritime tradition — time balls. When standard time was created in the 1800s, sailors used what were called time balls to adjust their chronometers, or timepieces, while at sea. Using telescopes, they would watch for these time balls onshore to drop typically around noon or 1 p.m. and adjust accordingly. The first time ball to be installed in United States was in 1845 at the Naval Observatory in Washington.
Palmer died March 7, 1956 at Muhlenberg Hospital in Plainfield; his claim to fame was mentioned prominently in his obituary in the New York Times. He was 88. The headline read: "WALTER PALMER, ELECTRICIAN, 88; Retired Department Head for The Times Dies -- Directed Moving Sign Installation."
Though the tradition helped launched by Palmer continues, much has changed over the past 110 years. “What Walter created is like comparing a Model T to a modern-day sports car,” Peter Palmer said.
The New Year's Eve ball has gone through seven redesigns in its history.
In 1920, a 400-pound ball made entirely of wrought iron replaced the original. In 1955, the iron ball was replaced with an aluminum ball weighing a mere 150 pounds. This aluminum ball remained unchanged until the 1980s, when red light bulbs and the addition of a green stem converted the ball into an apple for the "I Love New York" marketing campaign from 1981 until 1988. After seven years, the traditional glowing white ball with white light bulbs and without the green stem returned to light the sky above Times Square. In 1995, the ball was upgraded with aluminum skin, rhinestones, strobes, and computer controls, but the aluminum ball was lowered for the last time in 1998, according to the Time Square New York website.
For Times Square 2000, the millennium celebration at the Crossroads of the World, the New Year's Eve ball was completely redesigned by Waterford Crystal and Philips Lighting. The crystal ball combined the latest in lighting technology with the most traditional of materials.
In 2007, for the 100th anniversary of the Times Square Ball Drop tradition, Waterford Crystal and Philips Lighting crafted a new LED crystal ball. The incandescent and halogen bulbs of the past century were replaced by state-of-the-art LED lighting technology that dramatically increased the brightness and color capabilities of the ball.
The seventh-generation ball weighs nearly six tons and is 12 feet in diameter, more than double Palmer's original design.
The following information is provided by the Times Square New York website:
- The ball is a geodesic sphere and weighs 11,875 pounds.
- The ball is covered with a total of 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles that vary in size, and range in length from 4 ¾ inches to 5 ¾ inches per side.
- For Times Square 2020, 192 Waterford Crystal triangles introduce the new Gift of Goodwill design of three pineapples signifying the traditional image of hospitality and goodwill.
- Another 192 are the Gift of Harmony design of small rosette cuts flowing into each other in beautiful harmony.
- Another 192 are the Gift of Serenity design of butterflies flying peacefully above a crystal meadow capturing the spirit of serenity. 192 are the Gift of Kindness design consisting of a circle of rosettes symbolizing unity with the fronds reaching out in an expression of kindness.
- Another 192 are the Gift of Wonder design composed by a faceted starburst inspiring our sense of wonder.
- Another 192 are the Gift of Fortitude design of diamond cuts on either side of a crystal pillar to represent the inner attributes of resolve, courage and spirit necessary to triumph over adversity.
- The remaining 1,728 triangles are the Gift of Imagination design with a series of intricate wedge cuts that are mirrored reflections of each other inspiring our imagination.
- The 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles are bolted to 672 LED modules which are attached to the aluminum frame of the ball.
- The ball is illuminated by 32,256 LEDs (light emitting diodes). Each LED module contains 48 LEDs - 12 red, 12 blue, 12 green, and 12 white for a total of 8,064 of each color.
- The ball is capable of displaying a palette of more than 16 million vibrant colors and billions of patterns that creates a spectacular kaleidoscope effect atop 1 Times Square.