Fax Machines Are So 20th Century (and 19th, And 21st!)

by Chris Haycox - Date: 2010-07-09 - Word Count: 758 Share This!

Faxing has come a long way, and for a longer time than many realize. It was once at the pinnacle of technology, a breakthrough that allowed transmission of text and images around the world. Even with the transition to Web-enabled faxing, fax machines in the tens of millions are still at work today in every country on Earth. This is quite a record of longevity to consider, especially for technologically sophisticated people using smart phones and other communications devices that change, it seems, on a weekly basis.

Knowing a bit about the history of the fax and its development over time is a good introduction to the more general lesson of how technology evolves. Still an integral part of modern communications, fax technology was part of a research and development era that also gave us copy machines, modems, laser printing and scanners. There are many common threads running through these various devices, and some produced technological changes that are still reverberating through time and space.

Brief history of the fax

Incredibly, the underlying technology of the fax machine dates back to the early 1840s, when a Scottish mechanic named Alexander Bain had the idea of visually implementing Morse code characters visually. In this way, the message would not depend on the hearing of the telegraph operator, and other kinds of information could be transmitted. Bain already had experience building such intricate mechanisms as clocks, so he set about conceiving, designing and patenting a concept that eventually led to the modern (20th century) fax machine.

In Bain's new device, the electrical signals carried over the telegraph wire were supposed to pass through chemically treated paper. The signal would produce evaporation of the chemicals in the area through which it passed, resulting in the long and short marks of Morse code. This worked faster than the hear-and-transcribe method, and allowed for the creation of automated transmitting and receiving through punched-hole tapes. The invention was called a chemical telegraph.

The earliest days

When telephones were invented (and not just by Alexander Graham Bell), a completely new communications era began. From being based on telegraph technology, faxing turned to the new model, and through the 20th century a whole list of advances affected the development in the 1960s of the scanning and rendering methods that are used for faxes, scanners and printers.

The basic operation of a fax machine, whose name is based on the word facsimile, is aimed at the exact recreation of a document through electromechanical means. Scanning across an image (of pictures or even the symbols we call letters) yields a pattern of dots on a grid, which are turned either on or off. The off dots are not printed, the on ones are, resulting in a final image that represents the original. Early on in the development of the commercial fax machine, the resolution was set at a then-high 200 dpi (dots per inch).

Into the present (and future)

It was the early 1980s when fax technology really took off and, literally in some cases, conquered the world. Group 3 of the CCITT (an acronym for the French group, the Committee Consultative International Telephonique et Telegraphique) established the specifications for fax machines. Fax machines were manufactured, sold and used in the millions and tens of millions, and is still a commonplace device in businesses around the world, even the highest of the high-tech companies in the West. Along the way, of course, other advances were made, such as the transition from thermal (and costly) paper rolls to plain paper, as well as a change in output types (again, from thermal to inkjet and laser printing).

Today, fax technology is still in use, especially in Asia and Africa where phone systems are more widespread than Internet connections. Because of the number of fax machines in the world, even modern firms that use Internet faxing, e-mail and other forms of digital communication still rely on the technology. Having an online fax account allows you to receive text and images from people who can afford a fax machine but not a computer or Internet connection, and lets you send your messages to them, as well. The fax (the technology as well as the machine) is an important part of many companies' marketing and outreach methods because there is a huge installed base of fax machines in the world, and they are not disappearing any time soon. So, the truth is that fax technology is not just 20th century, and not just 19th and 20th century, either. Faxing is 21st century, too!

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