Miley Cyrus and the History of the Wrecking Ball

A consideration of the iconic metal sphere, from demolition tool to pop-music metaphor

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Frazer Harrison / Getty Images for Relativity Media

Miley Cyrus attends the premiere of Relativity Media's "Paranoia" on Aug. 8, 2013, in Los Angeles

The latest pop-culture salvo from Miley Cyrus, her new single and video “Wrecking Ball,” is only a day old—but it’s already dominating conversation about the demolition device. Do a quick online search for the term “wrecking ball” and the top hits are all Cyrus-related. It’s easy to learn that she’s pretty much naked in the video, in which she sits astride one such sphere. It’s easy to learn that the song might be about her sometimes-beau, Liam Hemsworth. It’s easy to learn that the video is directed by controversial photographer Terry Richardson and that the clip has broken the record, previously held by One Direction, for the most views in one day on the online music-video network Vevo.

Here’s what’s less easy to learn: what’s the deal with wrecking balls?

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The difficulty of answering that question is due to more than Miley Cyrus’ Google-algorithm chops; wrecking balls actually have a kind of complicated history, considering the idea behind them is pretty simple.

For one thing—perhaps not surprisingly, given the “duh” factor of the concept—there’s disagreement about who invented the first wrecking ball.

The British metals company Henry Bath, for example, is one firm to take credit: they claim to have developed the tool in 1889, when the company was in the business of breaking iron ships to sell for scrap. According to their records, when confronted with their largest ship yet, the SS Great Eastern, the company realized that the labor costs invested in destroying such a large vessel the old way could not be recouped by the metal salvaged from the project—especially since the metal hull of the ship seemed impervious to hand tools. Henry Bath set up a crane with an engine that would pull a metal ball high enough that, when released, it could damage the hull: thus, the wrecking ball was born.

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Another claimant to wrecking-ball fame, according to Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition by Jeff Byles, is Jacob Volk of New York City’s Jacob Volk Wrecking and Shoring Company. That theory dates the invention to about 100 years ago and involves destroying buildings, not ships. The salad days of demolition were in the early 20th century, when rising New York skyscrapers required the destruction of the buildings that had stood in those spots before. In The Years with Ross, the author James Thurber described writing about Jacob Volk for The New Yorker: “a building wrecked out of Herculean mythology, who tore down two hundred and fifty big structures in Manhattan during his lifetime and never passed the Woolworth Building but what he dreamed of the joys of razing it.” (Despite his support of Volk’s claim as the first, Byles gives credit elsewhere for the most flamboyant—pre-Miley—use of a wrecking ball: in 1959, Toots Shor Restaurant in New York was destroyed by a ball painted with baseball stitches.)

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The need for wrecking balls grew as time frames for demolition projects shrank, with the iconic iron sphere (and its later not-quite-spherical cousins) growing in popularity around the 1940s. Their speed, however, doesn’t mean that wrecking balls work the way cartoons might suggest they do. Wrecking balls are meant to break up a structure, not to knock it over completely. A ball wielded with too much force, or striking in the wrong place, could lead to a big, dangerous mess; the goal instead is to make what was once a huge slab of concrete or metal into something that can be dismantled and carted away in bite-size pieces.

Still, a giant ball of metal isn’t exactly a precision instrument. That’s part of the reason why they’re not the destruction method of choice for urban demolition, where doomed buildings butt up against ones meant to stand. These days, new technology and equipment has made the tool much less common overall.

There’s just one area where wrecking balls are as popular as they ever were: metaphor.

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Miley Cyrus is far from the first artist to embrace the double meaning of demolition. It’s a convenient way to express the feeling of being either powerful or destroyed, and—even when the actual device is no longer a common sight—it’s easy to understand the idea of a heavy thing hitting a solid surface and reducing it to rubble.

Accordingly, Bruce Springsteen made it the title track of his latest studio album:

As did Emmylou Harris in 1995 (though in this case “The Wrecking Ball” seems to be the name of a bar, and Neil Young sang the same song in 1989):

There’s a Gillian Welch song from 2003…

But that doesn’t mean that Miley Cyrus hasn’t done anything new in the world of wrecking balls. When it comes to taking things to the next level, even in the world of demolition, there’s always the option of nudity: