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Split Flap Displays Guide: Top Flip Board Styles and Manufacturers

The Click-Clacking History of Split Flap Displays
Flip, clack, flip clack! The satisfying sound of rotating split flaps displaying new information is a nostalgic one for anyone who spent time in old train stations or airports. Though we live in an increasingly high-tech world, these electromechanical displays retain devoted fans decades after their peak popularity.

Let‘s explore the different styles of split flap displays, top manufacturers keeping the art alive, and why their retro charm still fascinates young and old alike in the 21st century!

Inventing the Spinning Wonder of Split Flap Boards
It all started in Italy back in the 1940s. Solari di Udine, a family-owned maker of clocks and timers, wanted to create an adjustable display to show train schedules or arrival/departure times. After years of tinkering, they unveiled their first split-flap clock in 1956 at a railway station in Belgium.

This first design featured four panels with printed numbers that would flip to indicate the current time. But a creative station manager saw greater potential, collaborating with Solari to expand the concept to a board with four rows and ten columns of alphanumeric flaps. When hooked up to an input device, this 40-flap split display could show train times, destinations and track numbers that could be changed on the fly.

The new invention took off like wildfire. According to Smithsonian Magazine, by the 1960s Solari’s iconic displays flipped and clacked from Europe to Asia and America, becoming standard fixtures from railway platforms to airports for decades. The satisfying sound of flipping letters and numbers also made split-flap displays popular for less practical purposes like TV studio announcement boards.

Let‘s explore what makes them spin!

Behind the Magic: How Split Flap Displays Work
A split flap display contains dozens to hundreds of thin horizontal flaps with printed characters or symbols on each side, stacked vertically. Attached to each flap is a small tab inserted into a rotating drive shaft. An electromagnetically controlled motor spins this drive shaft until the right flap‘s tab engages, causing that flap to flip 90 degrees.

According to engineer Sean Ragan‘s breakdown, the flaps snap into place using pins and alignment bars as they rotate, generating that signature "click-clack!" sound audiophiles enjoy. Once the controller receives updated input – say, a new flight departure time – the shaft spins again to change the message flap by flap. Depending on size and age of the board, the refresh speed ranges from nearly instantaneous on smaller split-flaps to a charmingly slow reveal on older classics.

While 1950s boards relied on basic relays and switches, contemporary units employ programmable logic controllers (PLCs) or single board computers. According to Oat Foundry‘s specifications, their modern circuitry allows smartphone or tablet control through apps and multi-board synchronization. Solari still manufactures classic boards using mechanical push button and switches tailored to vintage appeal.

Today‘s split flap market may seem relatively small, but these proven displays endure in key transportation hubs on most continents. Solari estimates over 300,000 total displays installed worldwide since the 1950‘s. China, India and parts of Europe still utilize the iconic flap board format on many platforms.

The Split Flap Renaissance – Artistic Appeal Across Industries
The tangible operation retains unique appeal versus ubiquitous digital screens surrounding us. Perhaps that accounts for split flaps remaining prominent at major international airports like London Heathrow, JFK and others where Solari still services many active boards.

Or witness Instagram‘s popular #SplitFlap hashtag revealing over 50,000 posts of user images and video, along with niche history accounts dedicated to the format. This renewed interest drives creative installations and events showcasing novelty flip displays beyond pure travel timekeeping purpose.

Museums like the Museum of Future History employ playful educational split-flaps engaging kids through history lessons. Kunsthalle Zurich’s 2019 “Let’s Flip It” exhibition combined art and physics centered around Swiss flip-board nostalgia. Even UK Electronica Band Hot Chip’s 2011 music video features a wild matrix of motorized rainbow boards.

Industries now re-embrace the format for branding and tradeshows seeking tactile interaction. Advertising agencies book custom flip-displays touring events or mall installations showing messaging with characteristic motion. Format15 architect firm installed an 80-square-foot split-flap facade display to promote its services atop a Stockholm parking garage in 2018 through 2021, viewable from a distant high-rise.

Private owners relish vintage boards on eBay or build DIY kits as unique "high-tech" steampunk decor for game rooms and events. One customer crafted an impressive 4 foot tall x 3 foot wide curved multicolor display for their lounge. Prices vary widely from under $100 for smaller hobbyist displays or $1500+ for new full-height commercial boards from Solari or partner brands. Larger architectural boards measuring over 5 feet tall cost upwards of $15,000.

Top Split Flap Display Styles
Single Flap
The single flap display is the simplest design with each row containing flaps printed with letters, numbers or symbols that rotate independently to form words. Found everywhere from train stations to schools displaying schedules, their slim profile fits in many spaces. Prices start under $500.

Matrix Display
The matrix split-flap takes the single flap concept and stacks multiple rows and columns to massively expand display possibilities. Common matrix sizes range from 13×4 to 160×10 flaps or larger depending on application, allowing them to show anything from complex flight data to animations. A microcontroller behind the board runs stepper motors that precisely flip the right combination of flaps. Pricing scales up with matrix size; common midsize boards span $2000-$4000+.

While most split flaps feature black flaps with white letters/symbols, some displays incorporate multicolored flaps for extra visual pop. These “Rainbow Boards” don’t necessarily show information but instead create colorful animations or art when the flaps spin to reveal their hidden hues. Going rainbow ads roughly 10-15% cost.

For a more modern flair, curved split-flap boards use the flexibility of materials like acrylic to create displays mounted on walls, rounded beams and other unconventional spaces. The mechanics work the same but the custom shapes grab more attention. Curving adds approximately 30% extra fabrication time and cost.

Hybrid Digital
As times changed, companies found ways to update the old split-flap magic with hybrid digital enhancements. Adding LED tickers along the top or bottom boosts visibility of messages while keeping the charm of mechanical flips. Others embed LCD screens between rows of flipping flaps to combine analog and digital. Hybrid editions cost more with advanced functionality.

Some modern split-flap makers wire up external control pads, allowing people to manually enter messages and watch custom words clatter to life. Interactive displays engage audiences at events/spaces in an eye-catching way no touchscreen can match. Interactivity requires integration of more advanced microcontrollers and input devices.

While still manufactured globally, real Italian-made split-flap tech from Solari or approved vendors provides optimal quality and lifespan. Yet Chinese Ebay sellers offer replica boards using less durable components – shop carefully!

Split Flap Display Manufacturing and Lead Times

The production process behind quality split-flap boards remains largely artisanal, virtually unchanged from Solari‘s 1950‘s methods. Skilled technicians still carefully hand-assemble and test displays in local workshops for clients worldwide rather than mass overseas outsourcing.

Constructing a new split-flap display takes surprisingly long from order to shipping. On average, popular small to midsize boards take 8-14 weeks with specs finalized upfront. Complex architectural boards can require 16+ weeks.

Rush orders sometimes possible for 20-30% expedite fees. However Solari‘s factory capacity limits accelerated fabrication, currently producing around 500 displays maximum per month. Limited supply keeps lead times longer as demand increased in recent years.

Major Flip Board Brands Through the Years
While imitators have come and gone, two Italian companies remain the authoritative source for authentic, quality split-flap displays built to endure years of use.

Solari di Udine
None can challenge newspaper printer turned clockmaker Solari’s claim as the inventor of split-flap display technology as we know it. Though they license their iconic designs to other manufacturers, Solari continues creating products from small single-sided boards to giant departure/arrival boards like those still seen in major airports today.

Tech giants like Google and Hollywood director Stephen Spielberg’s production team turn to Solari for the old-world European craftsmanship only this heritage brand can provide. Maintaining global headquarters still located in the province of Udine Italy where the split-flap‘s inventor was born, the pioneering company keeps innovating after over 95 years in the business.

Oat Foundry
Founded in Philadelphia in 2013, Oat Foundry brings Solari-inspired split-flap magic to North America combined with modern connectivity. Their displays adorn companies like Netflix and Whole Foods seeking a retro-hip aesthetic. Far from mass overseas production, Oat’s team meticulously hand-builds boards locally in Pennsylvania, combining modern technology with vintage style.

Oat Foundry introduced the popular New Yorker model: a steel 13 x 4 board with chrome flaps evoking mid-century newsroom aesthetic. They also offer “Rainbow Boards” featuring multicolored flaps and integrated LED tickers for enhanced messaging. Many products integrate Bluetooth/Wi-Fi for app and software control, creating engaging interactive experiences at conferences, trade shows and networking events.

Preserving The Allure of Split Flap Displays

In 2016, New York City commuters were puzzled as cryptic poems appeared each morning on the Solari board in Williamsburg‘s Bedford L subway platform. Over 5 months, acclaimed writer Valeria Luiselli used this nostalgic medium to broadcast a modern poetry project to the bustling masses.

Such creative use keeps the magic of split flaps alive, the tangible mechanical nature touching those longing for less disposable, screen-centered interactions.

Yes, newer LED arrival/departure boards often replace the classic Solari-style boards in big city train stations and airports these days thanks to lower maintenance costs. Germany based Solari service engineer Martin maintains many historic displays still clicking and clacking daily across Europe as his speciality. Yet one look at the mesmerized faces in crowds as a wall of colorful flaps animate, triggering memories and unlocking smiles, and you’ll witness something digital signage still cannot replicate.

Watch enthusiasts collect vintage flip-clocks on eBay for hundreds and explore Instagram‘s popular #SplitFlap hashtag showcasing this analog tech winning over younger generations.

We can expect the satisfying clacks and snaps of Solari‘s iconic midcentury invention to endure for decades more in transportation hubs, ballparks, museums and high-tech lodges — wherever devotees young and old gather to appreciate clicking bits of the past animating the present.