Split Flap Airport Displays – The Story of the Solari Board

The split-flap departure and arrival boards that were once a regular feature at airports around the world have all but disappeared as LED and digital screens have taken over. But her legacy lives on as the sight and sound of excited trepidation for millions of travelers as they embarked on their first-ever journey by air. Let’s take a trip down Memory Lane and check out these iconic features of commercial aviation history.

The story of an airport icon

The typical modern airport terminal is fast becoming a monolith of polished stone floors, with ample glass offering plenty of light to its occupants.


However, it wasn’t long ago that terminals echoed with the familiar “click-click-click” sound and gentle breeze created as gears whirred, wheels spun and hundreds of characters on giant flight information displays miraculously rotated and constantly reinvented

The visual spectacle, with numerous lines of flight information morphing as flights gradually moved up the display, often drew crowds. Many passengers stood and stared in amazement at this technological marvel that was subjected to this procedure hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day. Others simply gathered the information they needed and hit the road.

The split-flap display, also known as solari boards, named after its inventor, was once a cornerstone of airport terminals worldwide. Unfortunately, for all their technological genius and ability to display vast amounts of information that can be changed every few minutes, such panels are pretty much limited to aviation folklore.

What is a split flap display?

Split-Flap Displays are electromechanical digital display devices that display changeable alphanumeric graphics to convey information in dynamic environments such as airports or other transportation hubs. The signs also later developed the ability to display graphics and logos. The device, just like clocks, changed the information displayed about motors and electricity.

In devices with a split flap, such. B. early digital clocks, each character or graphic position has a collection of flaps on which the different characters or graphics are printed. These flaps are precisely rotated via internal mechanics to display the desired character or graphic.

The ability to display information clearly and change automatically, just like a clock, meant these devices found a wide variety of uses from the 1960s, such as: B. in train stations and airport terminals, typically to display departure or arrival information.

The split-flap displays of this era were complex and required specialist skills if they were to be serviced. Once installed, split-flap displays appear sleek and simple. However, over 5 million individual parts contribute to the functionality and sound of the display.

But in a time before LED and digital displays, their ability to constantly update information was invaluable for transportation hubs such as airports, while providing the following additional benefits:

  • Little or no power consumption while the display remains in a static state:
  • High visibility from a variety of viewing angles in most lighting conditions; and
  • The audible announcement, produced by the distinctive metallic “click,” draws attention to nearby people while the information displayed is updated.

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The early history of the Solari board

The history of these displays dates back to 1725 when the Italian watch manufacturer Solari di Udine opened in a small town in northern Italy. The company specialized in the manufacture of clocks for church towers and other municipal buildings.

In the aftermath of World War II and after a long history of successful trading, the family business (run by Remigio Solari at the time) collaborated with an Italian designer, Gino Valle. Together they designed a moving sign originally intended to show the time to train station users.

These early signs were simple but brilliant, using four keys, each split horizontally down the middle, containing ten digits. The groundbreaking design, featuring white numbers against black key backgrounds, won the prestigious Compasso D’Oro award in 1956. Later that same year, Solari di Udine sold its first movable sign to Liege Train Station in Belgium.

The evolution of an icon

Through further collaboration and input from a Belgian inventor, John Meyer, the basic design evolved into the more complex arrangement we are now familiar with, increasing from four to 40 flaps.

With this increase and improved ability to display letters and numbers, the Solari board transformed from a simple timing device into something with a far greater number of applications.

Thanks to their versatility in such environments, the company has reportedly sold thousands of boards to airports and train stations worldwide. The company even relocated units to many remote corners of the world and even to many remote markets as they were internationally recognized and their appeal spread across the globe.

Although Solari was not the only manufacturer and imitators jumped on the groundbreaking technology, it was the Italian company that was forever linked to the technology that has become synonymous with the likes of Hoover, Jeep or Jacuzzi for its unique design.

Old technology, modern applications

Solari di Udine remains an industry leader in dynamic signage and continues to sell its products to airports and train stations. However, the signs are now fully electronic, reducing maintenance and increasing reliability. Unfortunately, the company that invented the split-flap display no longer markets or sells the products for which it is best known at airports.

However, there are still many Solari boards. Some airports still retain them, albeit in an inoperative state. They are often kept as nostalgia pieces, protected behind glass and kept for historical reasons, or to provide increasingly exciting themes for this Instagram age.

In Australia, for example, there are three working boards in Qantas First Class lounges at Sydney and Melbourne airports. In addition, two are located at the notable TWA Hotel at JFK International Airport in New York.

The foyer of the TWA Hotel at JFK Airport features a Solari panel. Photo: Getty Images

These days, however, you’re more likely to find Solari boards outside of airports than inside them. The hospitality industry in particular has adopted the iconic retro look of the boards. In fact, Solari di Udine continues to sell its boards to shops, restaurants, museums and hotels. In recent years, other sectors have also embraced them as a nod to the sepia-toned age of nostalgia.

With the advent of wireless technology, cloud-based applications can help users easily control their modern split-flap displays. Many of the new displays run Linux, meaning users can control messaging either manually or autonomously from anywhere in the world. Expensive electronics are also no longer required. All that is required to operate a split flap display is a standard 110-220V power supply.

A classic example of aviation nostalgia

Though essentially extinct from airport departures and arrivals lounges, the split-flap display will long be remembered as a key element of the visual experience of air travel. The sight of them and the sounds they made will be remembered by millions of air travelers who have come into contact with them over the decades.

These memories evoke romantic feelings of anticipation of a far-flung journey or reunion with overseas friends and loved ones. They offered viewers a window on the world and presented the viewer with a selection of exotic destinations that many could only dream of visiting.

The Solari board has regained popularity due to its iconic and nostalgic design. Photo: Getty Images

But their simple design, combined with the visual spectacle they created every time they refreshed their displays, is what many miss. All you had to do was glance up at the Solari panel to hear the unmistakable whirr as information changed to get an update on your flight’s status, in contrast to today’s characterless digital airport display signage.

In summary, these days there wouldn’t be many people standing in front of a random LED screen at the airport and marveling at its technical and visual ingenuity the way people once did with Solari boards – an iconic one golden era of air travel, which has sadly been confined to aviation history ever since.

What are your memories of split flap airport displays? Do you know airports that still use a working Solari board to transmit flight information? Let us know in the comments.

About Willie Ash

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