Accomplishments and Records

The Surprising Age of the Fax Machine

In this age of email, mobile telephones equipped with cameras, and high-speed internet, the fax machine seems comically antiquated. A popular meme shows two people on the phone. One of them asks for something to be sent by fax. The other person responds, “Sorry. I can’t fax where I live.” The first person asks, “Oh, where do you live?” The answer: “2021. I live in 2021.”

Admittedly, fax machines are not on the cutting edge of technology, but we still think of them as being reasonably high-tech. Have you ever wondered just how old these fading office machines are?

“Fax” is an abbreviated form of “facsimile.” The credit for inventing the first fax machine goes to the Scottish inventor Alexander Bain. He was awarded a patent for a groundbreaking device that scanned an image and transmitted it, line by line, to a like device thousands of miles away.

Admittedly, there were some limitations in Bain’s early model. Readers over the age of 50 will remember the purple-colored copies of mimeograph machines that relied upon the original document being produced on a special stencil paper. Similarly, Bain’s first fax machine required some work on the original document; it had to electrochemically sensitive paper that had been previously soaked in a special chemical solution.

The scanning of the document was accomplished through a pendulum. As the pendulum moved back and forth over the slowly advancing image, it converted the words or images into electronic pulses, transmitting them by wire to a receiving device. The receiver, using a synchronized pendulum, reversed the scanning process, reproducing the original.

It would be helpful to pause a moment and consider the timeline for major advances in communication. Consider the dates below. Where would you guess Bain’s invention fits?

Do you need a clue? The same year Bain received a patent for his revolutionary device, a fellow by the name of John Gantt led a group of 700-1,000 emigrants on a hazardous journey to Oregon. Most of them traveled in covered wagons in the first major use of the Oregon Trail.

That’s right. That “old technology” we know as the fax machine is quite a bit older than you might have guessed. Alexander Bain’s ground-breaking method of communication was patented on May 27, 1843.

A schematic of Bain’s 1850 facsimile machine.

The early model, naturally, left a few things to be desired, but all things considered, it was a breathtaking breakthrough in communications. Seven years later, Bain developed an improved device. In 1861, Italian physicist Giovanni Caselli took Bain’s device to the next level, launching the first commercial telefax service between Paris and Lyon. This was a full 11 years before the invention of workable telephones.

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