History of Flip-Dots
The story of a mid-century display technology that’s getting a new life
There’s something shiver-inducing about the sound of a magnetic flipping display. And something satisfying, too. It’s like the sound of a thousand rain sticks all upturned at once, or a particularly precise ocean surf. But as more and more of these magnetic signs are disappearing from train stations and ball fields, it’s time to look back at their legacy and potential for reinvention.
Flip-dots are nifty little displays that essentially use magnetized disks as pixels. Electrical signals cause individual dots to quickly flip from one side to another displaying a different color, typically black and white.
The original “flip-disc” sign was invented by Kenyon Taylor, who was then Head of Research at Ferranti-Packard, a Canadian electric and tech company. In 1961, Trans-Canada Airlines asked the company for a practical way to display arrival and departure information at airports. Taylor came up with the idea of an array of two-sided dots that could flip between “on” and “off” using electromagnets. The dots would combine to form numbers, letters, and other shapes. The original design used nylon stocking thread to suspend each metal disc and act as a pivot point.
The displays were hand-built bespoke creations for several decades. Eventually Taylor and his crew created magnetic displays using bars rather than dots. By 1977, the technology was used in half of the world’s stock exchanges. Around that time, Ferranti-Packard developed a modular system of flip-disc displays that could be configured for applications ranging from gas station signs to busses to score boards and everything in between.
At one time, there were flip-disc screens in the majority of the country’s airports, train stations, and athletic stadiums, all clickity-clacking away to provide valuable information to the masses.
But as LED-based displays advanced in capability and reliability, fewer and fewer flip-dots were ordered. The display panels proved finicky as they aged, and rather than sending out a section to be repaired, venues would just as soon have them swapped for something newer and quieter. Today, all but a few of the displays have been removed from train stations and airports, replaced by more responsive and nimble technologies.
However, in recent years, the technology has found a new life as an artistic medium for technology-driven creators. In 2012, creative agency Breakfast notably created a flip-dot wall to promote TNT’s Perception. Flip-dots have been re-appropriated for Tetris games, artistic installations, and product launches.
At CES 2015, Real Art built what might be the world’s largest flip-dot display. Measuring 29.5’ long and 6.3’ tall, the giant screen used ooVoo’s Intelligent Video platform and Affectiva’s emotion-analysis to read and respond to people’s emotions in real time.
Got you hooked? Here’s more:
ooVoo’s Flip-Dot Wall
Read about all the juicy details of the world’s largest flip-dot display
Our love affair with another outdated tech classic: the teletype
How emotion-tracking algorithms give technology the ability to understand our inner lives