Tales In Tech History: The Fax Machine

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Take that Alexander Graham Bell! Faxes are older than the telephone, as the ability to send images over a wire was invented in 1843

The fax machine may have become something of a distant memory thanks to the widespread adoption of email, but a few decades ago the fax machine was a vital piece of office equipment.

Indeed, many businesses in the 1980s, 1990s and up to the mid 2000s, had two dedicated telephone lines.

One phone number was for the voice line that connected to the office PABX for traditional phone calls. The other phone number was dedicated solely to the fax machine.

faxmachineHistory Of The Fax

The fax machine became a hugely popular device for most offices (and indeed homes) in the past 35 years, as it allowed for an image (often an image of a document) to be sent over the phone network.

But the ability to send an image over a wire is a surprisingly old invention.

Indeed, being able to send an image over a wire even predates Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone (patented in 1876).

A Scottish man, Alexander Bain, is officially credited with inventing the first technology to send an image over a wire. He had begun working on an experimental fax machine between 1843 and 1846. Essentially, he synchronized the movement of two pendulums through a clock, and with that motion scan a message on a line by line basis.

He was thus able to project a (poor quality) image to and from a cylinder. He filed a patent on 27 May 1843, for “improvements in producing and regulating electric currents and improvements in timepieces, and in electric printing, and signal telegraphs.”

The idea had been born, and the next to take up the mantle was Englishman Frederick Bakewell.

Bakewell improved upon Bain’s invention as he had replaced Bain’s pendulums with rotating cylinders that were synchronized, allowing for a clearer image through better synchronization.

Bakewell was able to demonstrate a working laboratory version at the 1851 World’s Fair in London, but it was never a commercial success.

Faxing Evolution

That success came when in the 1860s, when Italian physicist Giovani Caselli invented the pantelegraph, which used a regulating clock to keep the sending and receiving mechanisms working together.

This pantelegraph later evolved into the modern-day facsimile machine, but back in the 1860s, it became widely used for image transmission in Europe. Remember, this was at a time when America was still locked in its ferocious civil war.

The late 1800s and early 1900s saw various improvements on Caselli’s pantelegraph, but it was the 20th century that saw the real uptake of fax machines with Radiofax (sending a fax over a radio signal) arriving in the 1950s.

But it was Xerox Corporation, that great technology inventor, who in 1964 introduced LDX (Long Distance Xerography). LDX is often touted as the first “commercial” version of today’s fax machine.

Xerox’s 1966 Magnafax Telecopier could be connected to any telephone line and could transmit a letter-sized document in six minutes.

Faxing Popularity

But the real success came because Japan  really embraced the invention. Indeed, that Asian country was responsible for smaller and faster fax machines, and in 1980 the ITU G3 Facsimile Standard was developed, mostly by Japan’s domestic telecoms giant NTT and overseas telecom firm KDDI.

Early fax machines printed their output onto thermal fax paper, which had the nasty habit of yellowing with age. Later versions printed onto regular paper, and faxes would last much longer.

This ageing problem meant that thermal fax paper was typically not accepted in archives or as documentary evidence in courts of law unless it had been photocopied.

The fax continued to evolve over the years. Its height was in the 1980s and 1990s, but gradually most corporate environments have witnessed the disappearance of free-standing fax machines.

This was because of a number of changes. For example in the 1980s the ability to send and receive faxes was included in computers and PCs, and later the ability to send and receive a fax became a function of Multi Function Printers (MFPs).

Nowadays some firms still operate fax servers that can receive and store incoming faxes electronically, and then route them to users on paper or via an email.

And of course, the adoption of smartphones has seen many virtual fax machines that can be downloaded as apps. These apps make use of the smartphone camera to ‘scan’ the fax document, and then upload them to the cloud or they can be emailed to various people.

So the day of the fax seems to be over, as its use in the business community has been declining since 2005.

But it may have some life left in it. This is because in some countries, electronic signatures on contracts are not yet recognized by law, while faxed contracts with copies of actual signatures are still required. How long this will remain the case remains to be seen.

One organisation still using the aging technology in abundance is the NHS, which holds the dubious honour of being the world’s largest purchaser of fax machines.