Get the Message Out: A History of Faxing & More

History of Faxing – First The Ships

Whenever you read a book about an ocean voyage before the era of mass communication, there is always a passage where two ships pass each other, talk for a few minutes, and exchange mail. Just imagine one ship leaving port somewhere with a batch of mail, taking it out to sea, encountering another ship, and exchanging mail (Moby Dick has a weird and delightful chapter about this kind of interaction). This exchange always blows my mind; back in those days, sending a letter could take years, and reaching its destination depended on two ships passing each other in a vast and loveless ocean. In fact, your letter might never even reach its final destination— and you wouldn’t even know it.

Not knowing whether your mail has been delivered is something we can barely imagine these days. Our history of communication via mail is one of constant progress. We’ve talked about telegraphs and telephones, but in our sporadic history of communications series, we’re going to look at getting full documents and images out. We’ll start with the long and strange history of faxing.

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The first fax machine, in 1843. Can you believe that? Image from elportaljournal.com

The Surprisingly Long History of Faxing

If you were to ask most people about the history of faxing (specifically, when they think fax machines were invented), they’d probably guess that fax machines were invented within the past three or four decades. They might assume that fax machines came into use in the 70s, came of age in the 80s, peaked in the 90s, and were still around but fading by the 2000s. The thing is, if anyone you asked gave you the previously outlined history of the fax machine, they’d be wrong. Shockingly, the history of the fax machine started in the 40s. The 1840s, that is.

In 1843, a Scotsman named Alexander Bain—a clocksman by trade—applied for a patent that piggybacked off Samuel Morse’s telegraph. It wasn’t exactly a fax machine as we know it. Bain’s idea was to rig a carefully calculated series of weights and electromagnetic measures in such a way that they could “read” the document on one end and reproduce it on the other. It wasn’t sending the image, as such, but sending a recreation of it (Morse wasn’t happy, and they were involved in a long legal struggle, which Morse eventually won).

Throughout the years, improvements were made— this time, without any major patent disputes. By the 1880s, Frederick Bakewell improved Bain’s idea of using pendulums by replacing them with synchronized rotating cylinders. These would read a document and send it to the same pendulums on the other side, which would reproduce it. Bakewell’s model was accurate enough to reproduce images.

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A diagram of Bain’s invention. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

These additional improvements continued throughout the years, increasing the machine’s commercial value. One early sponsor was Napoleon III, who was astounded by a demonstration by Giovanni Cassilli and his charmingly-named Pantelegraph. The Pantelegraph was most commonly used to send signatures for banking purposes, which admittedly robs it of some of its romance.

Faxes Through to Today

Images have always been important, but newspapers began to use the fax machine invention even before the need to reproduce photographs presented itself. Drawings—particularly of murderers and other criminals—were sent across the country and the world for reproduction. By the 1960s, journalists could use the Telex to send full pages to editors, rather than having to read them word-by-word over the phone, with all the possibility for miscommunication.

Eventually, fax machines became a staple of business. All of a sudden, offices had the ability to send contracts, signatures, term offers, legal documents, and cartoons anywhere they wanted. The hum and the whirr and the screech became an unavoidable backdrop to any office setting. They weren’t perfect though; early models couldn’t handle more than one call at a time. If someone wasn’t watching, a message could go unnoticed.

Obviously, there was a need for a better system. The answer to that need lies in email, and especially in later cloud technology. Fax machines are now all but gone. Next week, we’ll look at this shift. For now, we mourn the loss of something that is older, and considerably more revolutionary, than most of us ever imagined.

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