Sure, it’s the world’s fourth-tallest freestanding structure, but generally—like a good Torontonian—the CN Tower doesn’t call much attention to itself. Aircraft warning lights flash discreetly, and when the sun goes down, an appropriately patriotic red-and-white glow envelops the tower. Every night, though, at the top of the hour, there’s a notable exception. For eight solid minutes, a multi-coloured, multi-effect light display takes over—and the CN Tower shows off.
Rumour has it that the person responsible for these dynamic displays lives in a nearby condo and controls the lights from his tower-facing view. Rumour, predictably, has it wrong. “But that’s not far from the truth,” says Tom Mellon, the CN Tower’s operations manager and the actual man behind the light shows. “There is a master control unit at the top of the tower, but I can log in remotely and program it from anywhere.”
The designer software on Mellon’s laptop doesn’t look especially futuristic—there’s even a Clip Art palette on the loading page—but from it, he can manipulate each one of the 1,330 LED lights that were installed along the Tower’s elevator shaft, main pod and antenna in June 2007. He also has his pick of millions of colours and patterns. That’s a dizzying array of choice, and Mellon admits that, initially, designing a light show was a lengthy process. Now he whips up most of them in a matter of minutes. “I’ve done so many”—he estimates hundreds in nearly five years—“that I can be at my desk and anticipate what the show is going to look like,” Mellon says. “I’m less likely now to sit across the street at the park and program it from there.”
There are also plenty of special occasions that require Mellon’s attention. For a 2009 Nuit Blanche installation, he and artist Ryan Stec spent three six-hour nights in a hotel room overlooking the CN Tower, synchronizing the lights to high-energy music. “I’d design it, then Ryan would say, ‘Let’s slow it down, let’s overlay some patterns.’ We’d watch and tweak.” Two years earlier, when the Grey Cup played at the Rogers Centre next door, Mellon was able to light the tower in the winning team’s colours from his home in Burlington. “I watched the game on my TV, and as soon as Saskatchewan won, I logged in and the lights changed to white and green.”
It’s all a vast improvement on the original lighting technology, the washing machine–sized spotlights that lined the base and roof of the tower until they were scrapped in 1997. “They consumed energy at an alarming rate,” says Jack Robinson, the chief operating ofﬁcer who spearheaded the campaign to relight the Tower. “Our current lighting uses 60 per cent less energy and costs about 1,000 bucks a month.” If one of the shoebox-sized LED lights fails, an error message with the bulb’s precise IP address is sent to Mellon’s phone. “I’m just waiting for the opportunity to light the tower with a click of my BlackBerry,” Robinson says. As party tricks go, that’s not too shabby.
CN TOWER STATS
3 hours: Amount of time it took to change the light bulb of one of the original, washing machine–sized spotlights.
4: Number of people it took to change one original spotlight—all wearing flak jackets and face shields, because the bulbs were explosive.
$2.5 million: Cost to install the 1,330-bulb LED system in 2007.
10 minutes: Amount of time it takes to change one of the new LED light bulbs that line the inside of the tower’s elevator shaft.
2: Number of people it takes to change an LED bulb—riding on top of an elevator to get to the burnt light.
On March 7, from dusk till dawn, the CN Tower will light up in purple to celebrate National Engineering Month; the next day, it’ll turn gold for the 32nd annual Genie Awards.