Once a regular feature at airports around the world, split-flap departure and arrival panels have all but disappeared as LED and digital screens have taken over. Yet their legacy lives on in the sight and sound of excited trepidation for millions of travelers as they embarked on their very first air journey. Let’s take a trip down Memory Lane and look at these iconic features in commercial aviation history.
The story of an airport icon
The typical modern airport terminal is quickly becoming a monolith of polished stone floors, with copious amounts of glass providing an abundance of light for its users.
However, not so long ago, terminals echoed with the familiar sound of “clack-clack-clack” and the gentle breeze created when the cogs hummed, the wheels spun, and hundreds of figures on wheels. huge flight information screens reinvented themselves miraculously and regularly.
The visual spectacle, as many lines of flight information transformed as flights moved up the screen, often gathered crowds. Many passengers stood and watched, marveling at this technological masterpiece as it underwent this procedure hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day. Others would simply get the information they needed and move on.
The split-pane screen, also known as Solari panels, named after their inventor, was once the cornerstone of airport terminals around the world. Yet despite their technological genius and ability to display large amounts of information that could change every few minutes, these panels have sadly been pretty much confined to aviation folklore.
What is a split screen?
Split-flap displays are electromechanical digital display devices that present changeable alphanumeric graphics to convey information in dynamic environments such as airports or other transportation hubs. Panels also later developed the ability to display graphics and logos. The device, like clocks, changed the information it displayed via motors and electric current.
In split-flap devices, such as early digital clocks, each character or graphic position has a collection of flaps on which the various characters or graphics are printed. These flaps are precisely rotated via internal mechanics to display the desired character or graphic.
Having the ability to display information clearly and change automatically, much like a clock, these devices found a wide range of applications, such as train stations and airport terminals from the 1960s onwards, usually to display the departure or arrival information.
Split-pane screens of this era were complex and required specialist knowledge if they required maintenance. Once installed, split-pane screens look sleek and simple. However, over 5 million individual parts contribute to the functionality and sound of the display.
Yet, in an era before LED and digital displays, their ability to constantly refresh information was invaluable to 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 wide range of viewing angles in most lighting conditions; and
- The audible announcement created by the distinctive metallic “snap” draws attention to those nearby when the displayed information is updated.
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The Beginnings of the Solari Card
The history of these displays dates back to 1725, when the Italian watch company Solari di Udine opened its doors in a small town in northern Italy. The company specializes in the manufacture of clocks for church steeples and other municipal buildings.
After the Second World War and after a long history of commercial success, the family business (directed at this stage by Remigio Solari) collaborated with an Italian designer, Gino Valle. Together, they designed a mobile sign initially created to display the time to station users.
These early signs were simple but brilliant, using four flaps, each split horizontally down the middle, containing ten digits. With white numbers on a black background, the revolutionary design won the prestigious Compasso D’Oro award in 1956. Later that same year, Solari di Udine sold its first mobile sign at Liège station in Belgium.
The evolution of an icon
With further collaboration and input from a Belgian inventor, John Meyer, the basic design evolved into the more complex arrangement we know today, growing from four to 40 flaps.
With this increase in size, along with the improved ability to display letters and numbers, the Solari board went from being a simple time-telling device to something with a much larger number of applications.
Thanks to their versatility in such environments, the company is said to have sold thousands of cards to airports and train stations around the world. The company has even moved units to many remote corners of the world and even to many distant markets, given their international recognition and widespread appeal around the world.
Although Solari was not the only manufacturer and copier manufacturers were inspired by this revolutionary technology, it was the Italian company that became forever linked to the technology, which, together with companies such as Hoover, Jeep or Jacuzzi, has become synonymous with its unique motif.
Ancient technology, modern applications
Solari di Udine remains a leader in the dynamic signage industry and still sells products to airports and train stations. However, the panels are now fully electronic, reducing the maintenance required and increasing the resulting reliability. Unfortunately, the company that invented the split-pane display no longer markets or sells the products it is best known for at airports.
That said, many Solari cards still exist. Some airports still retain them, albeit in a non-operational state. They are often kept as nostalgia pieces, protected behind glass and kept for historical reasons, or increasingly to provide exciting subject matter for this era of Instagram.
In Australia, for example, there are three work tables in Qantas First Class lounges at Sydney and Melbourne airports. In addition, there are two retained in the remarkable TWA Hotel located at JFK International Airport in New York.
The lobby of the TWA hotel at JFK airport is equipped with a Solari panel. Photo: Getty Images
However, you’re more likely to find Solari cards away from airports rather than inside them these days. The hospitality industry, in particular, has embraced the iconic retro look of the boards. Indeed, 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 age of nostalgia.
With the introduction of wireless technology, cloud-based apps can help users easily control their modern split-panel displays. Most of the new displays run on Linux, which means users can control messaging manually or independently from anywhere in the world. And no more need for complex electronics. A standard 110-220V power supply is all that is needed for a split-flap screen to work.
A classic example of aviation nostalgia
Although it has all but disappeared from airport departure halls and arrival halls, the bi-fold display will long be remembered as a key part of the visual experience of air travel. Their sight and the sounds they created 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 distant travels or reunions with friends and loved ones overseas. They offered viewers a window on the world, presenting the viewer with a menu of exotic destinations that many could only dream of visiting in their lifetime.
The Solari board has seen a resurgence in popularity due to its iconic and nostalgic design. Photo: Getty Images
But their simple design, combined with the visual spectacle they created each time they renewed their displays, is missed by many. You only had to look at the Solari board when you heard the distinctive hum as the information changed to get an update on your flight status, unlike today’s characterless digital airport signage.
In summary, there can’t be too many individuals these days who would stand in front of a random airport LED screen marveling at its technical and visual ingenuity the same way people once did with the Solari panels – an icon of a golden age of air transport which, unfortunately, has since remained confined to aviation history.
What are your memories of split-flap airport displays? Do you know of any airports that still use a functioning Solari card to transmit flight information? Let us know in the comments.