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Preparing The 1,200-Pound Countdown Ball, The Star Of Pittsburgh's New Year's Eve Celebration

For the last two minutes of 2017, thousands of Pittsburghers will watch the glowing New Year’s Eve countdown ball at the top of Penn Avenue Place downtown.

The ball’s symbolic rise only lasts from 11:58 p.m. to midnight, but it takes about six weeks to prepare for the show.

Chris Ruffner, a foreman with Technique Architectural Products, built the ball 11 years ago and has worked on it every year since. It was designed as two halves that fit around the building’s 75-foot-tall flagpole. Once assembled, the ball weighs 1,200 pounds and requires a 3-ton winch to lift it up.

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The New Year's Eve countdown ball was designed as two halves that fit around the 75-foot-flag pole on top of Penn Avenue Place.

“It’s a good bit of power it needs to get up there,” Ruffner said. “It’d be basically like craning a … commercial size air conditioning unit for one of these buildings downtown up onto a roof.”

From Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, Ruffner spends dozens of hours adjusting the weight used to pulley the orb and perfect the timing, replacing any broken LED bulbs and testing the computer program that dictates the color display.

“There’s over 1,000 LEDs on it and they do, you know, a million or so color combinations,” Ruffner said.

Aside from the technical intricacies, the orb itself is quite beautiful. You wouldn’t be able to tell from the street, but wrapped around the ball is an iridescent, forking blue panel of plastic, meant to symbolize the three rivers. 

Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA
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The New Year's Eve ball's shadow is cast onto a wall on Penn Avenue Place during a test run on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017.

That's not all the New Year’s Eve orb represents. As the Pittsburghers below gleefully countdown the seconds to the new year, the orb goes up -- not down.

“It’s meant to represent the future,” Ruffner said. “Pittsburgh on the rise.”

In addition to watching the countdown ball, Highmark’s First Night celebrations will also include fireworks, ice sculptures, a parade and performances from local musicians.

*This post was updated on Jan. 3, 2018 to reflect that Chris Ruffner helped build the ball, but did not design it. 

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