Wait, the fax machine has been around for nearly 200 years? Surely, I have my dates wrong, right? Well, if you’ve read some of my previous What’s Old Is New Again articles, you’ll know that I love to find the ancient roots of our modern life. Yes friends, the fax machine, wonder that it is, was invented by the Scotsman Alexander Bain and patented in 1843 as the “Electric Printing Telegraph.” To put the timeline in perspective, the United States was only about 67 years old at the time and John Tyler was our tenth president (succeeding William Henry Harrison, who died after his first month in office).
Ok, enough US history, back to the fax machine. Early analog fax machines used electricity and paper soaked in potassium ferricyanide to produce images. When current is applied to the paper via a stylus, the paper turns black. By pulsing the current, you can create lines and with enough lines, a two-dimensional image. The tricky part here, is to get both the sending and receiving machines in sync. While this is fairly easy to do when in the same room, transmitting across a vast distance was more difficult. Bain’s solution was to utilize a pendulum attached to an electric clock (which he also developed) on both ends. This kept the units in sync, no matter the distance between them. Despite his early success, Bain did little to develop his invention further and eventually the patent expired, allowing others to expand upon his work.
Giovanni Caselli (among others) followed Bain’s work and presented his Pantelegraph (essentially a combination of a pantograph and a telegraph) to Napolean II in 1860 and his device saw some limited commercial use during this period. Yep, European businesses were using fax machines while our nation was fighting the Civil War. However, the Pantelegraph was too far ahead of it’s time. The pace of business life was so slow at the time that there was little demand for it, and the Pantelegraph soon failed largely due to lack of customers.
Development of wired facsimile transmission would continue through the 1800s and into the early 1920s. In 1924, Richard Ranger of RCA invented the wireless Photoradiogram, the forerunner of our current fax machines. The first photograph transmitted by transoceanic radio facsimile was a picture of President Calvin Coolidge on November 29th, 1924.
In the late 1930s, a curious new business soon sprang up, that of the “radio newspaper,” in which an abbreviated newspaper would be transmitted on AM radio frequencies to ordinary radios with a special printer attached. The radio set would receive the signal and print the newspaper directly in your home. Despite the amazing business potential and multiple competitors, this exciting way of receiving news proved too expensive, and the technical limitations too great to effectively compete with traditional daily newspapers, and “flash” bulletins broadcast over standard radio.
Jumping ahead again to 1966, the Xerox Corporation released the Magnafax Telecopier, a small (46lb) device that connected to a standard telephone line and could transmit a letter-sized document in six minutes. This was a great improvement over Xerox’s LDX system of 1964, which came in two pieces (one to send, another to receive), weighed 1,100lbs combined and could be leased for $800 a month. For comparison, modern fax machines only weigh a few pounds and cost less than $100.
These and other advancements led to the device we are familiar with today. And although the electronic components are much smaller now, the basic principles are still the same. Small and fast, for a few decades faxing something was one of the fastest ways to send documentation around the world. Alas, the fax machine eventually became a victim of its own success. The advances in telecommunications that the fax machine helped usher in proved to be its undoing. The fax machine’s advantages were soon eclipsed by things like email and instant messaging. In addition to being easier and faster to use, email was also cheaper, especially when being sent long distance.
So the next time you need to use a fax machine, and someone makes fun of you about how email is better, you can blow their minds by telling them the history of this humble little machine, and the role it played in the advent of modern communications.