When do you think the fax machine was invented? You might be forgiven for thinking it was as recently as the 1980s or 1990s, for that’s when fax machines experienced a momentary boom as the must-have piece of business equipment. But no. The fax machines beginning to gather dust in millions of offices around the world can trace their heritage back well over 150 years, to 1842.

That’s more than 30 years before Alexander Graham Bell said “Mr Watson, come here, I want you,” through the first working telephone. Despite its long history, fax, or facsimile, is a technology that never truly “made it”, at least compared to the humble telephone. But it’s also a technology that never really went away. Our relationship with these machines today may be one of unapologetic indifference, but there’s more to the fax than meets the eye.

The story begins with Alexander Bain, a Scotsman who can be credited with inventing the first experimental fax machines and patenting his ideas. Tinkering began in 1842, but none of Bain’s machines were particularly successful. They worked by line-by-line scanning a message written with special ink on a metallic surface. This picked up the electrical impression of the original and a telegraph circuit could be used to transmit the information at a distance. At the other end, paper sensitive to electricity received the lines one by one.

Legal chaos

Each step in the process presented huge challenges. Alongside being technically difficult, Bain worked during an age of fierce competition and entrepreneurialism. Jonathan Coopersmith of Texas A&M University is the author of a new book on the history of faxing called Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine. He points out that Bain got into several unhelpful legal wrangles with individuals like Frederick Bakewell, who he accused of stealing his ideas.

“Like a lot of inventors, he’s very proud of what he’s done, so he’s very temperamental and very quick to sue,” notes Coopersmith.

Decades passed with more experimentation, but faxing struggled to get off the ground. That didn’t deter inventors, however, including the Italian Giovanni Caselli who in 1860 impressed French emperor Napoleon III with a demonstration of the technology in Paris. As Coopersmith says, the enthusiasm of the age let people imagine the future potential this nascent technology might have – sending images and words across vast distances at the blink of an eye.

“The people building these things didn’t worry that what they were doing was going to be limited or a failure, they’re thinking, ‘I’m going to make this work!’” he explains. “The most recent similar experience I can think of is the dot-com boom or the app boom, where people got in on the ground floor of this exciting new technology with very little investment.”

Japanese breakthrough

By the early 20th Century, fax machines were prized by organisations like newspapers, which used them to transmit photographs for urgent publication. The military also enjoyed the benefits of people able to fax maps and charts to and from aircraft at great speed. Even then, there were still problems. Newspapers found that they often had to retransmit their photographs in order to get a good image – such was the level of interference on early fax lines.

It was only later, once Japanese businesses had truly popularised the technology in the 1970s and 1980s that fax became the business tool of the yuppie age.

By the end of the 20th Century, fax had become practically ubiquitous. The technology was now a key part of the booming information age. It was flashy and reliable.

But faxing was also a little irritating. Because fax machines have their own phone numbers, they sometimes erroneously call people’s telephones, blurting out unintelligible, warbling dial tones. There are still reports today of people plagued with nuisance fax calls. Perhaps more powerfully than anything else, though, it was the world wide web that signalled trouble for fax, as the technology reached its zenith. For many, the web very quickly replaced the need for faxing. But the surprising thing is just how long fax machines have stuck around, and the reasons for this are surprisingly complex.

Spam-free zone

In Japan, for instance, where faxing’s golden age really began, the ability to send handwritten notes using the traditional alphabet appeals to some businesses who rely on the formality of linguistic tradition.

Elsewhere, faxing has continued to allow for specialist transmissions, such as sending legal documents with signatures via a protocol or encrypted fax service which guarantees to a high degree of certainty that the message has not been tampered with. Also, one benefit of faxing over email continues to be the simple fact that the sender is notified when their document has been successfully received. There are no spam folders on fax machines.

Ultimately, though, there’s no reason to believe that these cases are enough to safeguard fax’s long-term survival. Internet-based alternatives are now plentiful and fax machines have enjoyed little development since their heyday.

Among manufacturers, there is perhaps also a sense that fax machines are something they continue to make simply because, for a short while at least, they have to.

‘Furthering digitisation’

The passion of Bain, Caselli and others has long faded, then. But we shouldn’t just remember faxing as a long, drawn-out curiosity, bettered by competing technologies and never quite as slick as its proponents claimed it could be. All of those statements are fair, but faxing achieved more than all that. It introduced the world to a very contemporary concept: instant, sophisticated communication. And that’s what defines our modern era of the web, of course.

“In reality faxing was actually furthering digitisation by getting people used to the idea of getting information and images at a distance, the idea of instant communication,” says Coopersmith.

And hidden within the history of the fax machine there are distinct foreshadows of the web we use today. Coopersmith recounts a conversation he had with Tony Borg, a salesman for Canon fax machines. In the 1980s Borg says he was able to convince small businesses to buy the devices after employees realised they could use them for organising American football betting pools. “This was something where they said, ‘Oh! That’s what I could do with it, this is excellent’,” says Coopersmith.

Next time you furtively play Candy Crush at work, or check your Facebook news feed, consider yourself a descendant of the guys in the 80s who, caught in the midst of dreary office life, scored big on the football pools. All thanks to the 150-year-old fax machine.

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