Monday, December 01, 2008

The Greatness That Are Solari and Split-Flap Departure Boards

Among the enjoyable moments during my visit to B and T Crowd territory for the Thanksgiving weekend, was visiting the Newark Train Station (NTS) because I got to see the NTS mechanical information board.

There may be shady people and poorly lit roads around the station...

...but if you make it this far, it's worth it...until, that is, you have to get back to the NJ Turnpike.

For years I'd visit the NTS with my dad when he would dropoff or pickup my mom for one of her Amtrak trips between New Jersey and Maryland to visit her mother. After surviving a not-so-safe 6-block drive through downtown Newark, we'd reach the station where I'd wait with my mom until her train arrived. The only way to determine its status, in a time before Internet status updates, was to look at the huge mechanical information board in the main terminal.

I had no idea this was called a Solari Departure Board or a split-flap display. You can thank me later for this great party icebreaker.

I was, and still am, in awe when the board updates. From what little engineering knowledge I have, the board has hundreds of openings for letter and location placards that flip. Each letter placeholder has about 40 placards for 26 letters, 10 numbers, and a few punctuation/miscellaneous symbols. The location placards flip through every city served by Amtrak. I just love the sights and flickering sounds of the board. When a board in Boston's South Station was replaced, an electronic "ticktickticktick" sound was added because I'm not the only one who loves to hear it.

Better visibility, lower power consumption, and distinct sounds alerting people to updates...why replace what isn't broken?

Having not been in the NTS (also known as Penn Station) for a good 10 years, I was excited to see if the board had been replaced with a next generation electronic board. We walked passed the information booth and there it was...the same mechanical board. Even in these modern times, it's the old school mechanical board that's getting things done.

With this schematic I'm one step closer to building my own!

After what felt like an eternal 7-minute wait, I heard the familiar flicks behind the board and before I knew it, the entire board went into action. Every placeholder in every column for every train began flipping through Amtrak stops, arrival times, track numbers, train numbers, and status.

The board worked perfectly, yet again.

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