All That Glitters: A History of the Disco Ball

Behold: Disco's unofficial mascot.
Behold: Disco's unofficial mascot. / Daniel Knighton/Getty Images

The world nearly lost Boy George to a disco ball.

In 1998, the pop singer was rehearsing for a performance in Dorset, England, when a massive mirrored ball weighing 62 pounds suddenly fell from the ceiling, with Boy George standing directly underneath it. The ball raked the side of his face and knocked him to the floor. A wire had snapped. According to observers, it came just 2 inches from landing directly on his head.

The near-death experience was the latest in a series of indignities—not for the “Karma Chameleon” singer but for the ball, which defined the 1970s nightclub scene in much the same way as bell-bottomed suits and cocaine. Reflecting light and hanging like a trophy over revelers, the ball would spin late into the night. It was stylish yet simplistic, a siren call for people who wanted to move underneath it and forget their troubles.

But the ball didn’t originate with disco. To understand its history, you have to go much further back and dig into the object’s true party-animal authors: electricians.

Mirror, Mirror

Laxmi the elephant rehearses a trick standing atop a mirror ball in 1959.
Laxmi the elephant rehearses a trick standing atop a mirror ball in 1959. / Ron Case/Keystone/Getty Images

According to Vice, the first published mention of a novelty mirrored ball came in an 1897 issue of The Electrical Worker, a trade publication for union workers in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Inside the magazine was a description of the organization’s annual get-together and its various decorations. A carbon arc lamp was said to have been positioned to reflect off of a “mirrored ball.”

It was likely a one-off creation that was custom-made for the gathering: The mirrored ball as a business enterprise didn’t manifest itself until a man named Louis Bernard Woeste applied for a patent for a “myriad reflector” in 1917. The sphere was offered for sale by his Cincinnati-based company, Stephens and Woeste, beginning in the 1920s and promised to fill dance halls with “dancing fireflies of a thousand hues.”

The early globes were 27 inches in diameter and covered in over 1200 tiny mirrors, adding a glittering sheen of color to entertainment venues. The dance halls of the era had no strobe lights, fog machines, or glow sticks; the atmosphere was more conservative. The myriad reflector suited the spaces perfectly, and a number of them popped up at dances as well as jazz clubs and skating rinks—and even circuses, where animals might balance themselves on reinforced reflectors. (The name itself was another issue: People took to calling it a mirror ball or glitter ball rather than Woeste’s slightly stuffy description.)

The globes were modestly successful but never a runaway hit, and Stephens and Woeste eventually distanced itself from their production. The baton (or ball) was picked up in the 1940s and 1950s by the Omega National Products company of Louisville, Kentucky, which had experience making flexible mirrored sheets for Art Deco furniture of the era. Some people wanted their Kleenex boxes to sparkle; others, like Liberace, wanted an entire piano covered in the reflective material.

Mirrored balls were a natural progression, and Omega made them to order for dance halls. But their status as a piece of pop culture iconography didn’t come until the 1970s.

Saturday Night Fever

Saturday Night Fever made a star of disco--and disco balls.
Saturday Night Fever made a star of disco--and disco balls. / Blank Archives/Getty Images

The arrival of disco in the 1970s ushered in a new wave of nightlife. All over the country, young adults were growing enamored with the sound, which was easy to dance to and carried with it a kind of sensorial overload. Clubs used lights to create atmosphere, like patrons were inside a pinball machine. It was the new escapism: Hoisted high over crowds, the ball was the perfect accessory.

Omega was positioned to dominate the market, and they did. During disco’s heyday in the mid-1970s, 90 percent of America's supply of disco balls was sourced from Omega. Twenty-five plant workers would make 25 balls each per day by hand, carefully affixing the reflective sheets to metal globes. A 48-inch model might sell for $4000, or roughly $20,000 today. But clubs happily paid, knowing the “disco ball” was the perfect complement to their décor.

The ball practically got a co-starring credit in Saturday Night Fever, the 1977 smash hit movie starring John Travolta as Tony Manero, an ennui-ridden New Yorker who finds escape in the city’s disco scene.

The movie made disco bigger than ever, with an estimated 20,000 disco clubs popping up around the country. A couple in Bloomington, Indiana, even exchanged wedding vows underneath one, while the Bee Gees’s “How Deep Is Your Love?” pulsed through the speakers. In Fort Worth, Texas, a company named Disco Delite offered mobile disco services, with a ball and sound equipment available to turn any boring area into a swinging affair. But the love affair with the disco iconography wasn't built to last.

Fading Out

The disco backlash of the late 1970s kept the disco ball from spinning.
The disco backlash of the late 1970s kept the disco ball from spinning. / Blank Archives/Getty Images

Disco’s demise was due in part to a trend that had expired but was hastened in some part by a backlash. In 1979, a promotional stunt at Chicago’s Comiskey Park during a baseball game went awry after invitees were told to bring disco records to destroy. Disco Demolition Night turned into a catastrophe, with the Chicago White Sox forced to forfeit after the crowd—and the bonfires—grew out of control. (The night had as much to do with racism as it did anti-disco sentiment, with attendees also burning R&B records in vast quantities.)

Whether it was hastened by such pushback or not, disco’s time in the spotlight was more or less at an end; fewer people were dazzled by the ceiling-hung ball, a symbol of an outdated fad. By the time Travolta made a sequel to Saturday Night Fever, 1983’s Staying Alive, there was nary a disco ball in sight.

The ball hasn’t been completely relegated to history. In 2016, in tribute to Omega, the city of Louisville—the unofficial disco ball capital of the world—built an 11-foot, 2300-pound ball at a cost of $50,000. Omega still makes the balls, though they need just one worker, not 25, to fill orders.

Depending on where you are, you might stumble across one at a concert for its kitsch value, or even at renovated buildings. For years, a Rite Aid in Manhattan puzzled patrons with its disco ball mounted on the ceiling. The building was once a roller rink.

As for Boy George: After being seen for a bruised ear back in 1999, he returned to the stage later that evening for his performance. “I have survived and I’m still here,” he said, a sentiment that could also be shared by the ball.