Image: Science & Society Picture Library (Getty Images).
The fax machine is a thoroughly unusual technology to discuss. On the surface, it’s the most boring contraption imaginable — in an era of Snapchat glasses and augmented reality headsets, how could anyone possibly be interested in a machine that was seemingly defunct and irrelevant almost as soon as it became popular? However, looking beyond the common belief that faxing was something society was briefly obsessed with in the ’80s and early ’90s before it seemingly disappeared forever, there’s a unique and fascinating story of multiple revolutionary inventions that changed the course of electronic communications.
Though the fax machine might mistakenly be remembered as a product of the Generation X technology boom, the first seeds that led to its creation were planted as early as the 1800s, and its importance spanned years of human progress, conflict, and war. With that being said, let’s take a closer look at the strange history of the fax machine, and all the people throughout history who were involved in the creation of arguably the world’s most underrated technology.
Who invented the fax machine?
Scottish inventor Alexander Bain put forward the patent for the first fax machine, then known as the facsimile machine, in 1843 — the same year that the “Great Migration” on the Oregon Trail began. Yes, that’s right: electronic communications were taking place in the same year that your favorite educational PC video game was set in, complete with all that nasty dysentery and cholera.
The first machine was developed by Bain in 1846, with him using a clock to synchronize the movement of two pendulums, which would scan each line of a message in the process. This message was then sent to the receiver on electro-chemically sensitive paper, using a chemical solution he would also later use for his chemical telegraph invention. The message was then sent over a series of wires and reproduced on the receiver’s end.
Bain, an unexceptional student who spent his days toiling on a farm in the small village of Watten, Caithness, began his first steps towards becoming an inventor while hired as an apprentice to a clockmaker in Wick. After moving to London, Bain began experimenting with the science of electricity as a result of a lecture he attended at the Polytechnic Institution, leading him to employ some unorthodox methods in order to further understand how electricity could be employed in a practical manner.
Buying little more than a coil of wire, in 1840 Bain used cattle jawbones for hinges and heather for springs, creating makeshift batteries by inserting different metals into the Earth. These batteries would then power the springs and force the cow’s jawbones to move, a suitably terrifying creation that was much less useful than the inventions it would inspire.
Shortly following the creation of his weird cow machine, Bain had a monumental breakthrough after inventing the electric clock, a creation that was on the cusp of being stolen by Sir Charles Wheatstone. Wheatstone was a notable inventor, having been responsible for the development of many of the biggest breakthroughs of the Victorian era, including the Stereoscope which allowed for the viewing of 3D images (3D movies now use a technology known as stereoscopic 3D in reference to this early invention, so now you know who to blame for the increased theater prices). After Bain was told to approach Wheatstone in order to obtain financing for his electric clock idea, Wheatstone replied: “Oh, I shouldn’t bother to develop these things any further! There’s no future in them.” He later went on to attempt to patent an appropriation of this technology, but after a legal battle with Bain the patent was blocked.
A mere two years later and Bain had created the facsimile machine, though his experimentation with this technology would be prematurely brought to an end by another inventor. While Bain hoped to improve the facsimile machine, attempting to file a patent for an updated version of the technology in 1850, he was beaten to the punch by Frederick Bakewell, an English physicist who replaced Bain’s dual pendulums with rotating synchronized cylinders. Known as the image telegraph, this new machine saw writing and illustrations being drawn onto metal foil with insulating ink, with this foil then wrapping around one of the cylinders and a stylus tracing a path over it. During the mid-19th century Bain pursued a series of legal battles with Bakewell, incensed that he had stolen his ideas, but the improvements Bakewell had made helped force Bain’s revolutionary technology into irrelevancy.
However, despite Bakewell’s image telegraph machine being a notable improvement over Bain’s original invention, the need for synchronization between its cylinders was still a major issue, and one that was ultimately solved in the most unlikeliest of places…
The priest and the pantelegraph
Although Bakewell’s facsimile machine was an improvement on Bain’s original invention, it still wasn’t considered competent enough to become a commercial product. This is when an Italian priest stepped in, with Father Giovanni Caselli moonlighting as an inventor/physicist and complementing his evening masses with a spot of technological advancement, inventing the pantelegraph which would become the first operating facsimile machine put into use.
Initially financed by Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1856, when the Duke’s interest in the technology decreased Caselli moved to France, where he gained financial support from an enthusiastic Napoleon III. Napoleon, seeing the future in being able to send messages across the world with astonishing immediacy, authorized messages to be sent via the pantelegraph between Paris and Marseille, a distance of 800 km, before the machine was eventually enacted into French law in 1864. Official operations between Paris and Lyon began in 1865, over an official French network for the messages. Caselli was later awarded the Legion of Honor by Napoleon, the highest award granted to citizens for military and civil merits.
While the fax machine hasn’t withstood the test of time as well as the telephone, the pantelegraph’s commercial telefax service started 11 years prior to Alexander Graham Bell’s creation of the world’s first practical telephone, and was a precursor to all electronic communications as a result. Over the next century the fax machine would continue to gain momentum, inspired by healthy competition that would lead to a number of inventors improving upon the technology until it became a household item.
Telephotography, World War II and the Associated Press
Nowadays you can send a GIF of a pair of kangaroos enthusiastically rubbing their tummies to your Nan via Facebook Messenger, but back in the early 20th century swift electronic communication was largely incomprehensible.
The next major step towards it becoming a reality came in 1906, when the German physicist and mathematician Arthur Korn invented a method of sending a photo via fax known as telephotography, using light sensitive selenium cells and a Nernst lamp as a light source in order to transmit a photo of Crown Prince William over a distance of 1,800 km.
This was followed by French photographer Édouard Belin’s Belinograph, which was created in 1913 and allowed for images to be transmitted over phone lines. The AT&T Wirephoto service was formed on the back of this invention, a service that allowed users (predominantly photographers and journalists) to send and receive photos. AT&T forked out $3 million to get this system up and running in 1926, setting up eight sending and receiving centers, though its extraordinary expense and niche market caused it to be a financial bust for the company.
US engineer Richard H. Ranger’s creation of the wireless photoradiogram would provide yet another huge step in the direction towards modern fax machines, allowing him to send a picture of President Calvin Coolidge from New York to London in 1924. Unlike AT&T’s complex service, the photoradiogram’s wireless nature made transmitting images much easier. Ranger, who served in the US Army Signal Corps in World War I before attending MIT, was the first person to send a picture through radio facsimile, an event which would play a major role in the development of future fax machines. Ranger’s invention would go on to inspire radiofax, also known as weatherfax, which allowed monochrome images to be transmitted line-by-line across an electrical signal. This was predominantly used to send weather charts across landlines, with it being of great use in the shipping industry. This technology is still available today, though users predominantly pull the weather charts from websites.
(In an unrelated — but pretty cool — piece of trivia, Ranger also worked as part of an investigative team at the end of World War II who uncovered advanced German technologies, writing a series of technical reports that would later help him create the magnetic tape recorder. This tape recorder would be of huge benefit to the film industry, helping to synchronize visuals and audio in films, with him winning an Oscar for his efforts in 1950.)
Telephotography received a big boom in popularity during World War II, with the Associated Press setting up its Wirephoto service in 1935. This service was much more accomplished than AT&T’s, ensuring that photos no longer needed to be delivered via mail, train or plane, and allowing photographs of the war to be disseminated with unprecedented efficiency. Whereas it could previously take days for a photograph to arrive by other means, by using AP Wirephoto photographers could have their images in the hands of newspapers within minutes. As the world headed into war, many prominent newspapers signed up to the service, and the Associated Press experienced tremendous growth as a result. When sending these photographs out to newspapers, a member of the AP news room would radio their various partnered editors, explaining in detail the content of the photograph before it reached them.
Wirephoto wasn’t solely used for journalistic purposes, though. Prior to the war it had been used as a means of sending out maps and charts, which inevitably became a much more useful feature when the Allied forces were trying to get the jump on the Axis powers. Secret information was also passed through using Wirephoto and facsimile machines, with it becoming a key military tool prior to it being used commercially.
It would again be used for AP’s coverage of the Vietnam war, including the iconic and tragic photo of 9-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc running away from a South Vietnamese napalm attack. The publication of this photo was initially denied by an editor at the Associated Press, who argued that a naked photo of a young girl shouldn’t be allowed to be transmitted over a wire. German photo-journalist Horst Faas argued Ut’s case, saying that an exception should be made for the photo given the context, and a compromise was made that no close-up images of Phúc would be allowed to be printed. Ut was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the image.
Japan enters the game
Despite facsimile machines having been used since the 19th century, it took until 1964 for a company to take the initiative and start looking at fax machines as commercially viable products. The Xerox Corporation were the first to make this bold move, introducing Long Distance Xerography (LDX), a 1,100 pound beast that was shortly followed by the Magnafax Telecopier, a much lighter machine that could be connected to any telephone line, transmitting a letter within six minutes. This became the model that future fax machines were based upon.
Xerox would spend the next three decades and change developing smaller, faster fax machines that helped make the technology more viable for everyday use, though it was the Japanese who really propelled it into its next phase. After entering the fax market in the late ’70s, they began developing much more efficient machines that started to creep into US offices, eventually becoming staples of the workplace. Then in 1980 the ITU G3 Facsimile Standard was introduced, with Japan’s NTT telephone company taking the reins and enforcing a Standard that would lead to much greater innovation in the market.
In 1985, the California-based company GammaLink invented the first ever PC-to-fax technology, GammaFax. This coincided with Xerox integrated Ethernet into its fax machines, making the technology much more computer-based as a result. In 1983, 300,000 fax machines were in US offices, but by 1989 this number had risen to a staggering 4 million. However, with the World Wide Web being invented by Tim Berners-Lee later that year, fax machines were standing on the brink of irrelevancy just as soon as their popularity was exploding.
The demise of the fax machine
The ever-changing nature of technology made the fax machine a casualty in the ’90s. Though it was still ubiquitous in the workplace, the rise of the World Wide Web and faster, more efficient computing technology began to make the humble fax machine look outdated by comparison. With Berners-Lee having created the World Wide Web in ’89 and the very first website in ’91, companies such as AT&T and AOL were setting themselves up as Internet Service Providers, offering email services that would soon stand to all but eradicate the fax machine.
The 1999 comedy Office Space perfectly summarized the attitude to the fax machine at the end of the 20th century, with it representing a loathed and tired work culture in which white-collar drones are forced to be subservient to systems they resent. The office’s malfunctioning printer/fax machine is eventually destroyed in a cathartic act by its three protagonists, with the film coincidentally being filmed in a year when fax machines were rendered all but obsolete as an everyday household item.
With emails allowing documents to be quickly sent from one user to the other, scanners allowing scanned documents to be attached in said emails, and printers letting users easily obtain a copy of whichever document they pleased, the uses of the fax machine were growing increasingly slim. As the 21st century rolled on, no longer was it seen as a mainstay of the modern office, with many presuming it to have gone the way of the Dodo or, more pertinently, the pager. However, the fax machine is still knocking around to this day, even if it isn’t quite the force that those who invested millions into its advancement would have hoped it would have continued to be.
The fax machine in the 21st century
The fax machine isn’t exactly healthy, but it is still considered useful by many organizations throughout the world. One of the primary reasons for still making use of the outdated technology is that it’s safer than storing confidential information in the cloud, with the likes of the CIA still requiring it in their communications. With so many high-profile cyber attacks having taken place in recent years, it’s really no great surprise (and thoroughly understandable) that some still refuse to trust online communications, and would still prefer to deal with a telephone line and a fax machine instead.
Outside of the government, there are others for whom confidentiality remains a priority, making faxing still a part of their day-to-day working life. For instance, doctors must comply with HIPAA regulations when communicating customer information to insurance companies, which are easy to meet when using the more secure method of faxing. Lawyers are also required to have many physical copies of their work, which is made easier by fax machines as a result of being able to easily send and share documents. There are also online fax services which allow fax machines to be communicated with over the internet, making the process even easier.
While the fax machine is hardly going to receive another boom in popularity like it did in the ’80s, there is clearly still a place for it in the modern world. While it may be the butt of jokes in the tech world, and you’re hardly going to see Apple developing an “iFax” in the next decade, its surprisingly long history and huge contribution to the future of electronic communications means that it deserves its rightful place in the history books.