Technological changes: are they always necessary?

26 04 2010

I know…in this economy, it is necessary to save money however you can, especially if you’re dealing with business or even as a city. And I know that technological advances have come from everywhere in past years, and that these changes in technology have in turn led to significant savings. And though I largely understand and agree with the reasons for them, sometimes I do wish that these changes could be held off.

An example of a change to save money is the replacement of the old incandescent traffic signals, that have been around for decades, with LED signals. This has happened with pretty much all of the traffic signals I’ve seen here in Brantford.

Another is less noticeable, unless you’re a train buff like I am (more on that another time): mechanical boards to indicate upcoming departing trains at train stations are slowly being replaced with LED displays. A LED board is now what is in use at Union Station in Toronto, replacing the flip-dot board that has been there for about as long as I can remember, and I just found out that the “split-flap” boards made by Solari di Udine in Europe, which have been used in train stations (and in some airports) in US cities for a long time, are on the way out in favour of an LED display.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I understand the reasons for these changes. There are significant cost savings to be had. The LED systems for traffic signals and train station displays will be pretty much maintenance free, reducing the costs associated with using them to a fraction of what was needed for the older systems. And steps have been taken or are being considered to make the new systems look and/or sound as close as possible to their predecessors. Even so, they’re not the same.

I’ve seen the progression of LED traffic signals progress in recent years to the point where, at first glance, the light from the main signals is almost indistinguishable from the incandescent bulbs. But there is a difference to my eyes – two of them, actually. The green in the green signals have a slight bit more of a blue tinge to them than what was there before. And the transition between the signals (green to amber, for example) is pretty much immediate, with no fade in/fade out effect that the incandescents had. Yes, I’m very much a details person, I admit it, and I’m nit-picking, but after some 40 years, I’ve gotten accustomed to the fade effect of traffic lights, and find that the new ones have a more “electronic” feel to them than I prefer.

And when it comes to the display boards in places like train stations, I’m an old-school fellow. Mechanical things like this have interested me for all my life. When I was living in Toronto, I could spend hours looking at the departure board at Union Station, fascinated at how it would update every few minutes to show the latest train departure info. The flip-dot board has this neat “click” sound when each dot is flipped over from black to green or vice-versa. The same was true for years when the Toronto Transit Commission buses used flip-dot displays for their destination signs (which have also now been replaced by LEDs). The sound of the mechanics of these signs was part of what interested me.

The “split-flap” boards are equally neat for me. If such a board were nearby, you could be certain that I’d be there often, watching how it changed to show the latest information. I’ve seen some cool videos of these signs on Youtube, and like the flip-dot signs, there is a distinctive sound that would be part of the ambiance of a train station with such a board in place. These train stations will now have that aspect missing when the boards are replaced with LED displays.

More and more of these old mechanical marvels are being replaced all the time. An other example is at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon. For decades, the scoreboards used at Wimbledon’s major courts used the same flip-dot technology I described above. Not long ago, they were replaced with the latest LED technology, which also enabled them to be used for the challenges that have been seen at major tennis tournaments in recent years. Advances are good, but I miss seeing those old boards, which to me were part of watching the Wimbledon tournament.

I do understand and accept that new technologies come along all the time, to help improve many aspects of life, and to make those things more economical to maintain. Having said that, I do wish at times that technology would slow down a little bit…that sometimes, the old methods still work just as well and don’t need to be replaced…at least, not just yet.

Flip-dot technology: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flip-dot_display

Split-flap technology: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Split-flap_display

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