April 1 – YMX: Land, Migration, and Loss after Mirabel

After many months working on the Solaris, germinating ideas in the dark of winter, the project is almost ready to spring up into the light. We’re excited to launch Cheryl Sim’s installation with the boards, YMX: Land, Migration, and Loss after Mirabel on April 1, 2017 from 3-5 PM at Galerie POPOP (Belgo Building – 372 rue Ste-Catherine O. Espace 442-444). The show will run until April 13.

Sim has been working on an installation that uses our two Solari boards as a starting place to talk about the multiple levels of human and other-than-human movement through Mirabel: those displaced from the land to build the airport and the thousands who arrived at Mirabel escaping war, disaster, or economic adversity. Upon entering the darkened gallery space, visitors will follow a labyrinth of airport belt stanchions. Along this winding path, the visitor will encounter a video montage of interviews and archival materials reflecting Mirabel’s many intertwining narratives. This lyric video work weaves together the voices of poet Pierre Nepveu, whose family were expropriés, the farmers displaced to build Mirabel, and producer Prem Sooriyakumar and novelist Kim Thuy, whose families both immigrated through the airport. At another stop on the path, visitors can stop and read from Lignes Aériennes, a collection of poems about the airport by Nepveu.

At the end of the path, in the corner of the room, Sim has drafted an abstract script that our two Solari boards (Gate 46 and Gate 48) will read to one another. Although the boards have limited alphanumeric options (each can only display total of 6 letters or numbers), the script Sim has drafted has an iconographic quality. Mark Demers has been working to connect the two boards so that they can be programmed by one script. This is really exciting, as it means the boards will be able to “speak” to one another rhythmically—through call and response, or changing in unison. They’ll be programmed through a single SD card which will hold the program and the script in a TextEdit file. It’s amazing to have both of the boards functioning now. Stay tuned for more logistical details—we’ll share those soon.

We’ve also been working with local metalworker Colin Burnett of ICON L to make our signs freestanding. Colin has welded each of the boards two steel legs to stand on. In Mirabel, the signs once hung from the ceiling of the airport on burly pipe-like arms. These arms weigh almost as much as the signs themselves—we’ve been working out our own burly arms moving them around the Solari Lab! Each unit is very heavy, so we wanted a system that would allow them to be moved more easily from space to space. The new legs fit up inside the existing pipe, fitted with a bolt that acts like a pin to keep the legs from swivelling. The feet are 3 ft each, so they fit neatly through the door and so we can still squeeze them into the elevator. Each foot is equipped with two swivelling caster wheels, so they can roll easily and then be locked into place when they’ve been appropriately positioned. Matt mentioned in the summer that when the units got legs, they were going to remind him of Huey, Dewey, and Louie—the three service robots from the 1972 post-environmental-apocalypse sci-fi film Silent Running. And they do, don’t they? They’re almost-identical twins—similar, but each with their own personalities and quirks. These particularities will no doubt play into their performances in the installation in April.


Hello, Solari: Art, Specs, and Communication

Image of large bright red three-line Solari split-flap board. Above the top row is an open panel, displaying the electronics and mechanics of the board.We had a lovely back-and-forth with another Solari owner and operator, Lynn Shade, a US designer currently living in Japan who found us through the Atlas Obscura article. She’s got a handsome cherry-red three-line 81-cartridge Italian departures board, which she’s rigged up with a couple of technically-minded pals to display people’s messages that they send via Twitter and that are fed back online via webcam. You can check out these messages on the board’s twitter feed, @hellosolari. We know a few of you following along at home are keen to hear more about the tech information of these boards, and so we thought we could share a bit of our email exchange, which also includes some details on the artistic development of the project.

Lynn started off by telling us how she bought her board and how they’re currently troubleshooting the connection to Twitter:

“[F]rom our side we can tell you how we hooked it up to Twitter plus webcam so anyone in the world could write to the board. Unfortunately as I write the board’s Twitter connection is temporarily down. Originally it was connected to a Raspberry Pi & Pi camera and now an Intel Compute Stick + webcam. The Intel is super buggy and keeps flaking out…thinking about going back to Raspberry Pi but a more powerful one.

I’m interested in figuring out how to change my board from line-by-line flipping in sequential order, to randomized full board simultaneous flipping.

I bought my board from Solari 10 years ago. It was decommissioned from Milano Malpensa airport baggage claim. Solari re-configured the board, a collaborative project that took 2 years. The re-configuring included enabling it for ethernet. I can send the specs, such as they are, if that’ll help you guys.”

Closeup of inside of Solari board, the artist Lynn Shade's hand is on the left, and she is holding a metal part with a bundle of twisting wires inside.

We wrote back eagerly about Arduino and our future plans for a GUI:

“We’re working on two stages: currently our friend Mark from Spikenzie Labs is doing the heavy lifting (in the complete absence of schematics) of building the Arduino boards we need to get them working again. As you might have seen from our website solaris.concordia.ca each of the two signs has an array of eight units; the first six are all the same (alphanumeric); the last two are to display the 24-hr clock in 15-minute increments. Right now we can control all the units in one of the signs by sending commands from a laptop running the Arduino software. I believe ours are ‘simultaneous’ but strictly speaking sequential – just very fast, one after the other. Mark might be able to explain that better.

Stage two will be to use a Raspberry or similar (thanks for the tip re Intels) to build a GUI/control interface that we can feed data (or we might even just upload them to the Arduino). Definitely curious to find out how you made yours internet-enabled, which will be something we do down the line after our public installation on forced migration.”

Lynn sent us some more curious details about connecting to an IP and how they used Filemaker to program the frontend, and some of the limitations of that. She also shared a bit about how the project came together through a collaborative process, bolstered through friendship and enthusiasm and shared ideas:

Everyone I’ve worked with found the specs useless. The “Ethernet Kit” they refer to is 20-year old CPU with a Disk on Module (photo enclosed) which Solari connected before I bought it. That ethernet cable is simply plugged it into a wireless router. There was some confusion before figuring out my modem subnet range needed to be reconfigured since Solari had hardwired the web address to the board…but you won’t have that problem as you’re building your own.

The Solari board would be nowhere without smart friends. Riccardo at Solari who’d championed the project and told me stories about how several Solari employees were stationed full-time at Grand Central Terminal in New York just to take care of the big board, but despite his stories when the Solari arrived I hadn’t realized the weight of owning industrial machinery. Eric Hixon had helped with tech in other art projects and took charge of getting the board running. As you can relate there are times you don’t know if the board is ever going to flip. The night he got it working, he and his new girlfriend (now wife) had actually left for the night, but were suddenly back: Eric had one last idea in the car, the idea about the modem subnet. A few years later Kevin Tieskoetter wrote a cool FileMaker front-end to send data to the board continually. When I wanted to put the board online Eric wired up a Raspberry Pi & camera. Wilson Chan and Jon Christman got inspired during their holiday to Japan and stayed up nights making the board tweetable. Essentially, the board continually requires a specialist on call. During stretches when help wasn’t available I felt the pain of knowing there are just a tiny handful of people in the world with the talent, interest, and availability to work on the board—I think you can understand!”

It’s interesting too to hear Lynn talk about how the Solari board functions as a work of art. Lynn notes that the act of people writing to the board from afar works best when they are friends. Strangers had a different relationship with the board:

“The twitter thing is currently a lightweight proof of concept. I wanted a way to experiment with distant people writing to the board. Impressions so far: really cool to have friends write, not so great with and for strangers, even though they get a video back. If you guys are considering an interactive component it might be interesting to have a way to let people “talk” to the board only if they’re physically in the same location as the board. Your artwork on migration could incorporate a Papers Please kind of painful process, people would have to write on paper then get the message stamped approval etc. to *maybe* get their voice heard.”

It seems particularly important to draw from her experiences with programming the board with “meaningful” content in contrast to programming it with the kinds of data it would have traditionally held and having the viewer interpret that for themselves:

“No content I’ve tried on the board has moved me as much as staring at the boards at Frankfurt Airport. I wasn’t lost, this was organized Germany   : )   but I was so lost internally. Standing in the Departures hall staring up at the giant board, the sound of flipping and changes to the flights, all the destinations, there’s an aspect of looking to the board for literal direction and emotional direction. It’s exactly as you say in the description of Cheryl’s project: you’re in between arrival and departure in every sense. In Frankfurt as you go deeper into the airport the signs get smaller until at the gates they’re finally at eye level. It’s the most mesmerizing thing and reminded me of childhood flights from Haneda Airport. The art series I was working on at that time was about love & travel how both can be so incredibly inspiring and so destructively draining. When I’ve tried putting ‘meaningful’ content on the board, messages etc., the board somehow loses its power. My current thinking on my project is somehow, the board is meant to inexorably flip, and the meaning found in it needs to be interpreted by the viewer rather than have meaning given.”

Finally, she shared a bit of trivia with us! We knew that The Terminal was shot at Mirabel, but hadn’t heard about the title credits by Yu & Co.:

“Bit of trivia: the Spielberg film The Terminal was shot in Montréal-Mirabel airport. Garson Yu of LA special effects company Yu & Co. did the title credits that show the board. He said Spielberg brought in and installed another, larger board from Germany. The special effects crew sat up all night spray-painting umlauts out of the flaps. In the end, though, the title credits were re-created in CG. Garson said it took them over a month to analyse and recreate the physics of the board so the flaps would do that infinitesimal bounce at the end. http://www.yuco.com/projects/the-terminal.”

Write to Lynn’s board on Twitter by sending a tweet to @hellosolari! Within 5 minutes, you’ll get a tweet back with video and audio of your message. The 3-line board’s capacity is 27 characters per line. For line breaks, type “space / space”—for example:  “first line / second line / third line”—if the message doesn’t indicate line breaks, the board won’t flip. Like our board, in addition to the alphabet from A-Z and numbers from 0-9, @hellosolari can also display a period, a hyphen, a space, and a slash.

For anyone who’s interested, here are a few of the technical documents Lynn mentions:

Technical Information: Solari di Udine Flap Displays

Solari Software Specs

Solari Diagram: Final Dimensions


Solari – virtuoso demo from Matt Soar on Vimeo.

It’s been an exhilarating week: Mark Demers from SpikenzieLabs was in on Wednesday to finalize some work on our #48 board, and had a wonderful surprise for us – a program made in the difficult-to-search-for-but-easy-to-use automation software Processing.

Drawing from a TextEdit file, Processing allows us to create sequences of commands to send to the panel in our Solari board. Mark wrote a sequence that allows us to demonstrate the capacity of the program to change speeds, to turn the light on and off, to set the display and clock at the same time and independently, and to activate individual units one by one. This ability to program in advance will be instrumental in thinking about the possibilities for the signs’ use in a public art installation.

The software allows us not only to set the speed of the flapping, but also how long the program waits before sending the next command. Thinking about programming in this way feels a bit more like a composition or a choreography of sound and movement and symbols. Given these commands to run through instead of entering them manually changes the call-and-response dialogue of entering data and listening and looking for a result. Instead, the program allows the sign to perform. Listening to the Solari run the course of its automation, you begin to notice the nuance of the sounds of each unit. Its second display unit rumbles, lower-pitched, while its first has a higher voice. The clock units have a more lispy whisper on account of their large, thin size. And the light turns on with a slight upper ping, as its taught spring switches and the filament flushes red at the sudden rush of electricity.


So, the summer is over, and we’ve got one pretty perfectly working Solari board! The light behind the gate number turns on and off, the letters flap smoothly, the missing flaps have been cut, screenprinted, and replaced, it’s got a new set of wiring, DIN connectors, and a brand-new blue circuit board inside. Mark Demers at Spikenzie Labs has also solved the issue we were having with variant letters appearing. In early testing, we ended up with some interesting versions with the command to display “SOLARI,” which appeared as “SOHAPG,” “SOJARI,” “SOHASE,” and soforth. The extra coding Mark has added to his sequence is an additional measure to catch any errors in letters that might have come out different than the command. Now, it appears correctly every time. We’re still playing around with the 24-hour clock cartridges—the mechanism is a bit sticky from several years of disuse—so stay tuned for an update on those. We’ll also be working on getting the second unit running smoothly, and a support structure for the two displays. Until then, HELLO WORLD.

Solari 'Hello World' demo from Matt Soar on Vimeo.

Flight YMX Welcomes Aboard Artist Cheryl Sim

Good afternoon, everyone. Please ensure that your tray tables are secure and your seats are in the upright position. As we taxi into the fall, Flight YMX is delighted to welcome on board artist and curator Cheryl Sim as our collaborator. Using our two Solari boards as a starting place, Sim will be exploring ideas of memory, diaspora, hope, displacement, and migration through the lens of Mirabel airport. Drawing on video archives, oral history, crowd control stanchions, immigration statistics, and histories of resistance, Sim will create a site-specific installation that will speak to the experience of being in between arrival and departure physically, emotionally, and psychologically. We look forward to working with her to develop and find a berth for this project in a Montreal gallery when we begin our descent into winter.

Bienvenue à bord, Cheryl Sim!

Cheryl Sim is a media artist, curator and musician. She began her professional life at Studio D of the NFB, which led her to the wild world of video art and her involvement with artist-run centers. Her artistic output in single-channel video and media installation has persistently dealt with questions of identity formation and relations of power. Musically, she explores the intersections of jazz and electronic music that are haunted by a cabaret spirit. Her work as curator at DHC/ART Foundation for contemporary art has been greatly informed by the artist-run center ethos as well as her work as an artist. She recently completed her PhD research-creation dissertation at UQÀM, “The Fitting Room: The Cheongsam and Canadian Women of Chinese Heritage in Installation.”

Flight YMX is a part of the Montreal Signs Project, an ongoing research project dedicated to the exploration of signage in the city of Montréal, through memories, archives, and rescued or donated signs. It is supported by a grant from the Fonds Québécois de la Recherche sur la Société et la Culture (FQRSC), Appui à la recherche-création, titled ‘Les enseignes de Montréal: Culture, technologie, patrimoine.’

Photo: Still, CBC News, Archives: Mirabel airport inauguration, 2 May 2014, “Montreal’s ill-fated airport of the future opens its runways in 1975,” http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2453941780.

We’re in Atlas Obscura!

The beginning of fall feels slighly like heading off on a trip, no? As the leaves start to change colour and the air gets crisper, the days feel like hope. We may have some jangly nerves from being on a plane for the first time, or gleefully setting off at a new school: there’s a bit of anticipation, a few bated breaths, the promise of adventure.

We’re excited to start the season off right with some press from Sarah Laskow over at Atlas Obscura. Her piece, “Artists are Salvaging Train Stations’ Analog Departure Boards,” talks about our project along with others who are repurposing Solari boards once they become decommissioned and removed from airports and train stations. Read about some of their split-flap afterlives here.

Letters and Numbers

An index points. We might think of the index as an outstretched finger directing the way. (This is how the first finger on each hand got its name, the index finger—the one that points, that indicates, makes known). Or, it is a list in the back of a book that directs you to the correct page number to find the information you require. In 19th-century semiotics, philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce sought to formalize a way of thinking about signs as a continuation of his studies in logic. He wrote about the icon, the index, and the symbol. The icon physically resembles the thing it stands for (a small picture of a plane stands in for the plane itself) and the symbol points to connotations (usually word-based, but also in the sense that the bald eagle is also a symbol for the USA). However, the index is a sensory feature that correlates and implies something else. The classic example of an index is the presence of smoke, an index of a nearby fire.[1] Though it may have been unintended in its original design, the rhythmic clacking of the Solari display also has this signifying effect. Its cascade of clicking turns faces upward. The noise of the circulating flaps acts as an index—it points to new departure and arrival information. And maybe this indexical noise can’t be underestimated—when Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority replaced their split-flap displays in 2006 with digital LED displays, they retained the noise of the analog departure board:  a tick-tick-tick emitted by a speaker system inside of the board when the schedule changed over.[2]

In addition to the rustle of letters, there are a few other factors that make the analog split-flaps appealing (aside from retro-nostalgic longing, which is patently undeniable and yet perhaps a whole other story). Unlike digital displays, which become washed out and hard to see in bright light, and can only be read when regarded straight-on, the high contrast white-on-black letters of the Solari display allows for higher visibility in most light conditions. It is also able to be read from many different angles—which is useful in airports and train stations, where people are dispersed across the arrivals and departures area. Additionally, unlike a LED display that must remain lit when it is static, a split-flap display uses very little power until it is instructed to flip. And if power is cut temporarily to the system, the information remains visible instead of falling dark and then resetting in a jumble when the power returns.

Although we’ve delved mostly into the visceral mechanics of wiring and breadboards so far, the flaps themselves are the capricious face of each display. Originally metal and later plastic,[3] they came in the form of a fixed text (the whole name of a station or an airline) or an alphanumeric display that could be programmed individually. They would have been industrially cut and silk-screened in sheets. This was complicated in terms of individual replacements. As Tom Chaffin, the acting Principal Engineer for Telecoms at Thameslink writes of the fixed text displays, “every time the timetable changed altering train service calling points or final destinations changed or even for a train company name/branding change, new flaps had to be silk-screen printed and then inserted into the indicators ideally the night of the timetable change.”[4] With an entire rail or airport system, this process was costly and time-consuming. As a person responsible for the twice-yearly updates for the Southern Regions rail system reminisces, delivery took about 9 months, so you would have to predict requirements a year in advance. However, he notes, they could also order the flaps in multiple colours, and even could use the “rest position” as an advertising display for newspapers and whiskey.[5]

Black and white split flap board showing fixed and alphanumeric flaps from Kagoshi, Japan, small pink flowers in front of it, and airport arrival information on the boards.
Wikimedia Commons, “Split-flap display in Kagoshima airport, Kirishima, Japan.”

We’re working with two arrivals/departures displays—relatively small ones in the grand scheme of the giant multi-city boards Solari has manufactured—each display has eight cartridges, each cartridge has 40 cards (and how many were there going to St. Ives, I wonder?).


The first six cartridges in each board are 2-inch alphanumeric displays, followed by two larger cartridges to display a 24-hour clock. Inevitably, just in the ordinary course of their use—to say nothing of the subsequent closure, abandonment, and decay of Mirabel—at least a few flaps would have gone missing. We had to get an overview to make sure we had a full set. Earlier this summer, I flipped through what should have been a total of six hundred and forty flaps, so we could make sure that we had a complete set. Incredibly, we’re only missing two.

I wrote earlier about our makeshift replacement flaps in this post, laid out in Adobe Illustrator and sliced from the matte black plastic file folders Matt had found in the Loyola Campus bookstore by Mark’s laser cutter. Next, we needed to get the letters printed onto the black plastic. In an early experiment, I wondered if we might be able to paint the letters on with a brush. It seemed like the best choice to start, given that we only needed two flaps. I marked off the bottom half of the test B with painter’s tape and gave it a go. However, when I carefully tweezed off the tape after the paint was dry, the results were less than inspiring. The edge was a bit ragged from paint seeping under the tape or being pulled off in the removal process, and the brush marks bunched and stripped the paint in varying ways across the surface. So, we needed a different option. MIT’s The Beach Lab, in an effort to make their split-flap display relatively inexpensive, opted for cut vinyl letters. You can learn more about that project here. But I was so taken by the crisp edge of the screen-printed letters of the originals, and wondered if the vinyl letters might stick out sorely in a cascade of printed ones. It looks like others have done this method also—of cutting the flaps first and then individually screen-printing—like this dance company in preparing a board for a performance about travel.

My pal Justin Gordon is one of the three founding members of the excellent Montreal-based printmaking collective and studio Atelier Lost Cause, along with Concordia fine arts students Gabrielle Mulholland and Hillary Barnes. I asked him if he could help us out with printing, and he said he could try. I’d traced both sides of our missing letters (top of an E/bottom of an F and top of a Z/dash) at the lab and taken them home with me. In order to screen print, you need the parts you want the colour to go in jet black, and the other parts white. I took the original layout of the split-flap I’d made in Adobe Illustrator to use for the laser cutting:Black and white outline of split-flap…and repurposed it for our four half-letters. I carefully measured the tracings and laid out the letters in Illustrator, filled them with black, and printed them out on ordinary paper (with back-ups—in case one of them didn’t work out).[6]

Overvew of four black-and-white letters with blue split-flap outline laid out in a grid. The top of an E, bottom of an F, top of a Z, and a dash.Justin laid all four letters out with oil on one screen, exposed it, and then we were ready to go. We laid down a test onto acetate so we could see where the print would land, lined up each black flap behind the acetate, and printed the letters. They were a bit sticky when they came out, and so we tried to dry them under a heat dryer, which resulted in melted plastic. A brief stint under the dryer, and then some time by an open window, and they were ready to print the other side. Here they are—crisp, clean, and smooth, and although the gloss of the letters isn’t exact, it’s a pretty good match.

[1] R. Port, “ICON, INDEX and SYMBOL (Short Version),” http://www.cs.indiana.edu/~port/teach/103/sign.symbol.short.html.

[2] Mac Daniel, “Nostalgia for noise at South Station,” Boston Globe, 6 April 2006, https://www.ble-t.org/pr/news/pf_headline.asp?id=15901.

[3] http://www.iridetheharlemline.com/2010/05/14/fridays-from-the-historical-archives-solari-departure-boards-photos-history/

[4] http://unknowndomain.co.uk/category/design/split-flap-display/page/6/

[5] http://www.railforums.co.uk/showthread.php?p=2255362

[6] I should have had both a copy with the outline of the flap for a guideline and one without for the printing, but I didn’t print the latter! This meant that Justin and I had to cut carefully around each letter, lest the outline of the flap be printed in white onto the edge itself.

Completing the Circuit (Board)

When Mark was in the lab last Thursday, he brought in the circuit with four cables attached. This was his first test with more than one alphanumeric split-flap display—a set of four, which we need to be able to program to display different letters. This will eventually lead to the final wiring of six letters and the two cartridges of the 24-hour clock display. After getting them to level out and running a few tests, we invited up Communications Studies’ own Douglas Hollingworth to see our run of four spell out his name. Here’s the wiring in action:

On our next test Mark moved on to try out his own name, but instead it flipped up as MORK. We guessed that this was because of the same dirty wheel conundrum we had with the new solo unit last week. We cleaned it off again with a little rubbing alcohol, reconnected it, and this time, it flipped perfectly to MARK. Seems like we’re going to need to clean the wheels on all of the units to make sure the display registers correctly. (On a side note, is it just me or are these all-caps 4-letter names somewhat reminiscent of the demons of Twin Peaks?)

Confident now that the board configuration will work for the Solari controller, Mark is now getting a PCB—a printed circuit board—made up. You’ll recall that Mark has been working from a large-size breadboard:

IMG_5946A breadboard makes it possible to plug in wires, capacitors, sensors, resistors, power sources, integrated circuits, diodes, and transistors and still move them around. It’s a temporary support consisting of a plastic board with rows of holes, and a metal backplate. The electrical parts are pushed through the board until they connect and hold with the metal plate. It’s a provisional circuit that can be tested, adapted, and moved around until you’ve got something you’re happy with. When I asked Mark about those two teal-headed pins in the center of the board, he told me that they’re used as placeholders. Sometimes you want to move a wire and try it somewhere else, but you don’t want to forget where it came from in case it doesn’t work and you need to move it back. The pin stands in and holds the place of the moved wire until you can confirm that the circuit will work in its new configuration.

Historically, breadboards were actually that—boards for bread. Electricians needed a way to affix and keep steady a circuit involving tubes, lights, transformers, and other large components. They would screw these components and wires into the board, and would be able to unscrew them and move them around as needed during the testing process. Check out a picture and more information here.

However, once the circuit is complete and ready to be used, the breadboard makes it very difficult to practically use. Though temporarily secure, wires can get fall out, the long metal arms of capacitors and resistors can lead to crossed wires, and the whole shebang can get tangled and messy. So, once your circuit is fixed, you can print a PCB, a circuit board which has all of those components, just laid out flat on a piece of non-conductive material. Wires are printed as copper lines, and other parts are soldered onto the board.

Our PCB will have our names silkscreened on it—Spikenzie Labs as the designer, and Flight YMX – Montreal Signs Project as the initiator. Like the small yellowing tag, written in Italian, that points towards the boards’ origin in Udine, this PCB will be our trace in the board, the index towards this project—this time and place.

Speed Test, Dirty Wheel, Laser Flaps

Mark has been working away, and we’ve been able to troubleshoot some of the action on the Solari displays. When I went to visit him at the Spikenzie Labs workshop, the first thing he showed me was a speed test. The Arduino system is able to control the flapping speeds as well as which numeral/letter comes up. Actually, it controls the millisecond delay between the turning of the flaps. We have a lot of play with how fast it will be able to go. In this video, Mark tries three flapping speeds—one slower, one standard speed, and one fast. We could go faster or slower, but if it goes too much slower it could fry the motor, and if it goes too much faster it could overheat! Some of these other home-made models are faster paced than the standard Solari board, but the artist we work with will need to determine how fast they want it to go.

Next, I had brought over a different unit so we could test it out with the system Mark’s been working on to make sure there wasn’t a difference between the units. We hooked it up to the board, and it seemed to be glitching—when we set it to flip incrementally one by one, it was working fine, but trying to skip from the neutral position to a further ahead letter, it was falling short. We tried from a few different angles, but nothing was seeming to work. Finally, Mark had an idea—that the wheel was dirty! The wheel knows how to display the numbers based on the differential between the metal plates and the fiberboard wheel. It was falling short because it was registering the dirt on the metal plates as the fiberboard. He gave it a scrub with some rubbing alcohol and set it straight.

We’re also missing two flaps (Which from 8 sets of 40 flaps per machine is a pretty good rate!), and I’ve been working on replacing them. Matt had found a black plastic folder in the school bookstore which is about the same weight and colour as the flaps in the machine. We were worried at first that it would be too glossy (the flaps themselves are smooth and matte) but after holding them up next to each other, the match is pretty convincing.

We wanted to try laser cutting them so we can have a few back-ups, or so the artist we work with could potentially play around with different signage by replacing the flaps, if they wanted to. I did a burn test on the plastic, which makers will know is essential for laser cutters—if the flame is green, the plastic has chlorine present, which releases a gas. Not only is the gas toxic to the people laser cutting, it also has a damaging effect on the machinery itself. Blissfully, the flame was orange and not green! We carefully measured the dimensions of one of the existing flaps, and then I mocked it up in Adobe Illustrator. We sent the AI file to the laser cutter. After a few tries (the first ones were too slow, and melted the plastic) we came up with a clean, beautiful, laser-cut flap. This is totally exciting! Next, we’ll start work with a screen printer to print the missing letters on them.


Connections: DINs and Wires

The guts of our Solari displays are a twisting rainbow of bright wires on the pale yellow paint of their metal shell. Mark, our man at Spikensie Labs, came in last week to have a look at the innards in order to see how the circuit he’s making will line up with the structure itself. First, he was interested in testing out the connectivity of this patch panel, which in the original Solari configuration would have connected the 8 cartridges of letters and numbers to the programming unit. He was thinking that if the patch panel worked, it would be possible to connect our remade programming to the existing hardware of the unit.IMG_5798

He attached power one by one to each of the six wires running from the back of each DIN-6 connector and ran the detector along the back of the panel looking for where the electrical feed was appearing. No such luck! For each wire, we got connectivity only 20% of the time. We took a look at the rest of the unit, and it appears that the signals connect to the patch panel through a series of four relay boards, which are currently interrupting the electrical flow.


For those of you who like me are not-yet-versed in all matters electrical, a DIN connector is a form of electrical connector consisting of multiple pins within a protective circular sheath. It was initially standardized by the Deutsches Institut für Normung, a German standards organization—the German member body of the ISO (International Organisation for Standardization). As a term, DIN is less about cable type and more about standardization requirements. However, many DIN connectors consist of a round plastic sheath and a metal skirt, which keeps the sheath in place for a proper non-damaged connection.

Developed in Germany, the connector gained popularity in the 1970s as a standard connecting device for audio equipment. Possessing the ability to carry many independent signals, it enjoyed use in electronics until the mid 1990s when changing technologies meant that fiber optic cables and other new mechanisms began to be more efficient. Still, those of us who have connected a microphone or a speaker might notice a trace of the DIN’s physical resemblance in the still-prevalent XLR cable commonly used for recording and stage performance equipment. (A fun even-further side-note: the XLR gets its name from its development history from the Cannon X connector, to gaining an L with a subsequent latch locking mechanism, and an R with its rubber coating.) In our case, the DIN connector would have been a very popular piece of electronic equipment in 1975, when these Solari displays were manufactured for the 1975 opening of the Mirabel terminal.

After some testing, Mark noticed that the black plastic part in the DIN-5 connectors he had were very similar to the connectors in the panels, though the metal part wasn’t. This is a tricky business, because the slots on the DIN needs to match perfectly with the pins on each display cartridge, sliding in and lining up exactly with the connectors. We tested the plastic part, and it’s an almost-perfect match—the originals are 7 mm and the new plastic parts are 7.09 mm.
The plan now is to unscrew these two screws in the body of the Solari machine, use the guts of a new DIN-6 plastic part, and 3D-print a bracket to hold it (NB: for testing purposes, the photo is of a DIN-5 connector). Mark’s plan is to unscrew the existing plugs and tuck them into the panel—we’re trying to be as non-destructive as possible so that someone could choose a different restoration method in the future. Then, we’ll screw the new plugs and brackets into place with new wires connecting to our controller, completely avoiding the patch panel and the existing wires.


Works cited and further reading:
Meg Higa, “What Is a DIN Connector?” edited by Shereen Skola for wiseGeek, last modified 26 June 2016, accessed 27 June 2016:

Ray A. Rayburn, “A brief history of the XLR connector,” 4 July 2013, accessed 27 June 2016: http://www.soundfirst.com/xlr.html.