Aural and Visual Cues, and Food for Thought

Posted by George Hamlin
on Thursday, November 15, 2018

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

Not that long ago, they were common, if not ubiquitous, in transportation terminals, both rail and air.  The so-called “Split Flap” displays were, in many ways, emblematic of modernity in their heyday during the 1970s and 80s.  While today almost everything to do with communicating information in public spaces has become electronic, the Solari Boards, as they were known after the name of their manufacturer, were electro-mechanical devices.

And, they also talked, after a fashion.  As the flaps were flipped, so to speak, they made a clattering, clacking noise indicating that new information was about to be available. I can recall the crowd during evening rush hour at New York’s Penn Station looking up when the sound began; unlike a completely electronic device, which was silent, the Solari Board provided an aural clue that you needed to look, in this case, likely to see what track your train would be using. 

My most extensive personal exposure to this marvelous device was actually at the airport, in particular, New York’s JFK International.  I worked for two summers in the early 1970s for TWA at the airline’s iconic Saarinen Terminal; there were Solari Boards for both arrivals and departures above the information counter just inside the main entry doors.  From my position at the check-in counter, I often could see them, and during relatively quiet times, could hear them going about their business.

At one time, there were a number of these in what is now Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, including Boston’s South Station, Providence, New Haven, Penn Stations in Manhattan, Newark and Baltimore, and even New Carrollton.  Today, only a few remain, according to Wikipedia, including Atlantic City, Seacaucus Junction, Trenton, and, as in picture above, at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.

If you watch closely as the information changes at Philadelphia’s principal intercity rail facility, history often passes before your eyes.  For example, flaps that display “Cape Cod” as an origin or destination still make appearances on the Solari Board at 30th Street (with service from New Orleans and to Atlanta), although you’ll have to concentrate to see them as they flip past “on the fly”.  I also observed a phantom train operating from Jacksonville to Newport News; outstanding news for patrons in Tidewater Virginia needing to return from northern Florida (but probably wouldn’t rate a Viewliner diner). 

A little more far-fetched was the Acela Express from Montreal to Chicago; wonder why most of us didn’t notice the catenary being strung from Montreal through the tunnel at Sarnia, and beyond across the Midwestern U.S.?  Or did the turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York-Chicago Air Line actually get built to be utilized as part of this run’s routing?  Below it was the notice for the long-awaited Tampa-Montreal train, although I suspect that this would only be a seasonal operation.  At least the briefly-seen Boston-Charlotte Acela announcement might eventually come into being, albeit with a future generation of high-speed equipment.

Unfortunately, I doubt that a Solari Board will be around to display its (legitimate) announcement.  If you have the opportunity, get to Philly while the show is still playing and enjoy the soon-to-be anachronism; don’t forget to stop, look … and listen.

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