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The story of the flip clock begins in Italy with the founding of the company Solari di Udine in 1948. Remigio Solari, a self-taught engineer, fitted alphanumeric characters and text onto metal (later plastic) flaps attached on a wheel mechanism, enclosed it within a glass display and the flap display was born.
The Solari board, the name by which it would become known, was first installed at Liège-Guillemins station in Belgium in 1956. Never before had information – or even time – been displayed in such a fashion. It was a hit and became an industry standard in rail and air terminals worldwide. Even travelers meandering through major airports and train stations around the world today rely on the Solari board for departure and/or arrival information. After Remigio’s death in 1957, his brother Fermo incorporated the Solari board’s ingenious technology with the clock. Designed by architect Gino Valle, the Cifra series is an elegant combination of function and design. The technology for today’s flip clocks remains essentially the same as those of yesteryear. However, their design has given way to more creative minds and they now come in many shapes and sizes. Today the company Solari di Udine is still in business and is the pioneer in manufacturing commercial flap displays.
Solari Board at an international airport
The Cifra 3 (picture below) is the holy grail of flip clocks. It was designed by Gino Valle in 1965 and has won the Compasso d'Oro award for design. Till today, the Cifra 3 is a timeless masterpiece. It is now kept at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and and the Science Museum in London. The clock was re-issued in 1993 and was known as the "The Museum Clock".
Solari Cifra 3
But why flap display?
You might have wondered why even today flap displays at airports or flip clocks in banks have not been replaced by the more common digital LED displays. Well, some have, but a majority still stay loyal to this classic. World-class international airports, like Singapore’s Changi Airport, continue to use gigantic flap display boards. Why?
1) The flap display doesn't require specific lighting conditions for viewing. It remains clearly visible even under very strong lighting, which makes it an ideal choice for outdoor purposes (e.g. outdoor railway stations and bus terminals) compared to many digital LEDs or LCDs, which are rather sensitive to lighting conditions.
2) You can see the information on a flap display at literally any angle. Picture a tourist rushing to catch his flight. With minutes to go, he is relieved at finding his boarding gate with much ease thanks to the flap display.
3) Little power is needed when the blades flip, and when the blades stay still, it consumes almost no power. This is a great way to go eco-friendly especially when you have a lot of information to display.
4) Flap displays are virtually fault-tolerant in a case of a power failure. Should there be a blackout, the information displayed on the board remains as it is! This works as an additional emergency backup plan.
5) Flap display is cool.
A customised Solari board makes its first big screen debut in Steven Spielberg's flim - The Terminal (2004)
Although technology has advanced, the styling of a flap display will always be a timeless classic. Today, due to high demand, major manufacturers such as Twemco and Fartech are re-creating newer, more modern flip clocks for consumer use at affordable prices, while preserving the traditional squarish designs and mechanical clock movements. Apple Computer Inc. (Macintosh) and other mobile phone manufacturers such as HTC have also favored the flip-clock styling, using them in many of their screen savers and other applications. Flip clocks are also commonly used by interior designers to further their retro design concepts.
Though you should agree by now that flip clocks are stylish, they have a few disadvantages depending on how you look at it. A flip clock only works in one flipping direction, which is downwards in the direction of gravity. That means it is unable to flip upwards even if you try to force it manually. Consequently, if you have to reset the time to an earlier time, you will have to wind it forward using the adjustable knob until you set the right time. For example, if the current time on your flip clock shows 4:00 pm, and the actual time is 3:59 pm, you have to wind through 23 hours and 59 minutes to set it to 3:59 pm. An alternative method would be to remove the batteries and allow the clock to stop functioning for a minute to achieve the right time. Both ways might be a hassle, but how many times would one have to reset the clock? It has always been regarded as a “beautiful” flaw, like how time and effort is needed to age good wine. Flip clocks and flap displays are for those who truly appreciate the beauty of them.
A Flip Clock APP for iPhone