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Roll Your Own Split Flap Displays

It’s amazing how so many of the old display technologies are making a comeback. It’s certainly true that the retro steampunk nature of the electromechanical split-flap display is hard to beat.

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It’s funny how much you take for granted when you are young. It’s also strange how things you used to see all the time can gradually fade away without your noticing their passing from the world. One such example is that of split-flap displays. I was born and bred in the city of Sheffield in the county of Yorkshire in the center of the world, which you may know as England. When I was a young kid of around eight years old, which would be circa 1965, my mom and dad would take me to the city center on Saturdays. Since we didn’t have a car in those days, we would catch the electric tram at the bottom of Springfield Road. We didn’t have much money to spend, but we happily wandered around window shopping and seeing what there was to be seen. On most of these occasions we rode the tram back home, but every now and then we would catch a train. At that time, trains stopped at local stations in big cities; they still do in cities like Manchester and London. In our case, there were stations at both ends of Millhouses Park (a huge municipal park at the bottom of Springfield Road). These were big old steam engines and — even though the journey only took 30 minutes or so from the town center to our end of the park (there were quite a few stops) — it was a big thrill for a small boy. The reason I’m waffling on about this here is that each platform at the train station had a humongous display showing the arrival and departure times of the various trains. Although I wasn’t aware at the time, this was a capriciously cunning electromechanical contraption that I now know to be a split-flap display. Every minute or so, all of the characters would make frantic clickety-clackety sounds as they transitioned to new values. Later, as I grew older, I discovered that similar displays were employed at airports. Over the years, however, these split-flap mechanisms were retired and replaced with more modern technologies, largely settling on today’s high-resolution display screens. I’m saddened to say that I really didn’t notice the passing of the old split-flap displays. To be honest, I might never have thought about them again until a few months ago when I ran across a company called Oat Foundry. As you can see in this video, the folks at Oat Foundry make the most delectable and desirable split-flap displays on the planet.  
I cannot tell you how much I would love to have one of these bodacious beauties on the wall of my office. Nothing extravagant, you understand — I could happily content myself with a simple display comprising only 7 rows, each boasting only 32 columns.  
Unfortunately, these little scamps aren’t cheap. A more affordable version is the 7-row x 23-column offering from the guys and gals at Vestabord (I believe these are going to retail somewhere around $2,500 to $3,000). As we see in this video, this is a very tasty display for public spaces like cafes and offices, and it would also make a drool-worthy notice board for use at home.  
Not-so-long ago, my chum Rick Curl sent me this link to the GitHub repository of a guy called Scott, whose goal is to make a low-cost split-flap display that’s easy to fabricate at home in small/single quantities (e.g., custom materials that can be ordered from Ponoko or similar, and other hardware that is generally available). As we see in this video, Scott has developed a really tasty split-flap module.  
But wait, there’s more, because I just saw a Skinnable Split-Flap Display Module on Hackaday.io. This points us to the Split Flap Module website along with this repository on GitHub. What? You want still more? Well, in its “Credits” section, the GitHub repository for the aforementioned Skinnable Split-Flap Display Module notes that this project was inspired by the Dead Simple Split-Flap Display project on Thingiverse.com. I have to say that this video of the Dead Simple Split-Flap Display offers the best high-level view of how these little beauties work that I’ve see thus far.  
I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to feel a strong urge to have a play with split-flap technology. On the one hand, it would be great to build them from the ground up (maybe it’s time to invest in a new 3D printer). On the other hand, if they were cheap enough, it would be nice to simply gather a bunch of them together and start experimenting with the little scamps. What say you? Would you be interested in buying or building a matrix of split-flap display modules?

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Charles Pfeil

If I were to spend $3000 on a project like this, I would purchase an 86″ TV monitor and write a split-flap app to emulate the mechanical version. Could even include the sound of the flapping. As a bonus, the 86″ TV would be great to watch Alabama football games.

David Ashton

I also love these displays. But the time involved in building one would be prohibitive, fun though it would be. A kit would be good…..

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