Photo by Flickr user mattjiggins (link below)

The Gadget We Miss: The Fax Machine

This document sending device bridged the analog and digital worlds

There is something to be said for pieces of paper. Phone calls are all very well, but a signed piece of paper provides more vailidation. And that is why the fax machine was the go-to for making sure that things were signed, sealed and delivered in the days before digital signatures.

The fax machine has a surprisingly long history. The first patent for a fax-type device was issued in 1843 to a Scottish chap called Alexander Bain, who called the machine the electro-chemical telegraph. In this, a clockwork mechanism passed a wire over a metal plate original tracing a series of lines that scanned the plate At the other end, an electrode passed over chemically treated paper on the same path. The raised metal of the original caused a current to flow, which made the paper at the other end change color, creating a copy of the original on the paper. Although the technology has moved on somewhat since then, the fundamental approach remains the same, with the original document being scanned one line at a time, and the light or dark properties then being reproduced by the receiver.

The Western Union Desk Fax. It is not clear if the name refers to putting it on a desk, or it being the size of a desk. Flick user Marcin Wichary

The technology remained an oddity for many years, mainly finding use by the military for sending surveillance and other photos to analysts. Western Union offered a service called Desk Fax from 1948 until the mid-1960s, where a company could rent a device from them that could send images to another similar machine over a telephone line. By 1962, there were over 38,000 of these machines in use. Western Union also offered this service to the public, costing $4 (equivalent to about $30 today) to send an 8 by 11-inch page across the USA.

Fax technology entered the mainstream in 1966, when the Xerox corporation released a machine called the Magnafax Telecopier. This 46-lb machine could send and receive images over a telephone line,taking about six minutes to send a page. This created a new way for documents to be transmitted long distance, and it was famously featured in a scene in the 1968 film Bullitt, where Steve McQueen’s hard-nosed police detective discovers that the man who died in custody is not who they think he is, thanks to a faxed passport application.

The Bullit Telecopier scene.

The adoption of standards for how to transmit the images between machines also helped to spread their use. The first standard (called group 1) was defined in 1966 by the Electionic Industries Alliance, although many manufacturers used their own variations, which made international transmissions especially difficult. This took 6 or 7 minutes to send a single page.

This standard was updated in 1978 to increase the speed of transmission, called Group 2. However, this was quickly supplanted in 1980 by a new standard called Group 3, which moved from analog to digital to improve the speed and resolution of the image, computerizing the fax machine. Rather than the analog signal of Group 1 and 2, Group 3 fax machines captured the image at a resolution of 203 by 98 pixels per inch (or a high resolution mode of 203 by 196 ppi) and sent this data as a digital signal, using the same encoding as computer modems. The initial models could send data at only 300 bits per second (bps), but speeds improved through the 1980s until the image could be sent at up to 14,400 bps. This meant that a single page could be sent in under a minute with a decent phone line.

It also meant that computers could receive faxes, and the first combined fax/modem was launched in 1985. When combined with the appropriate software, these devices could send or receive faxes, with sending faxes becoming as easy as printing.

Every technology has a dark side, and the dark side of the fax was junk faxes. In the 1980s and early 1990s, it wasn’t uncommon to come into the office on monday morning to find your fax machine had received piles of junk faxes advertising dodgy goods, from cheap t-shirts to medical insurance. Companies were set up that would scan every possible phone number, calling and looking for the bippy noise of a fax machine at the other end. For a fee, they would then send your advert to thousands of these devices, whoever they were used by.

These were not just annoying — they cost money, as many early fax machines used special paper that was expensive. It became such a problem that a law was passed banning the practice: the 2005 Junk Fax Prevention Act made it an offense to send a fax without having an established business relationship, punishable by fines of up to $500 per violation. In one famous case, a con man inadvertantly sent a junk fax to the office of the US Secret Service, who followed up and prosecuted the unfortunate sender. These still seem to be a problem, according to this recent video from LA Times columnist David Lazarus.

The decline of Fax machines began in the late 1990s, as more people and businesses started connecting to the Internet, and high-speed connections made it easier to send documents by email. Dedicated fax machines became a rarity at the beginning of the century, with the rise of multi-function devices that combine scanner, printer and fax into one device. Fax support became just another factor, not one that determined which product to buy.

In movies, the Fax became an object of ridicule, most particularly in Back To The Future 2, where the future Mary McFly is fired by fax. “Read my Fax” yells his boss, as Faxes reading “YOU’RE FIRED” scroll out of every Fax machine, including one in the closet where McFly’s past girlfriend is hiding.

The Back To The Future 2 Fax scene, where Marty McFly is fired by Fax.

Fax machines still have their fans, though: many lawyers favor them as a way to get a document signed quickly, with confirmation that a document has been received. An email can get lost in the system, they reason, but a fax shows who received it and the date and time of receipt. Many lawyers are moving to the virtual fax services offered by companies like eFax, which replace the physical fax machine with a virtual one.

The Fax machine also seems to still be alive and well in the NFL. Elvis Dumervil, formerly of the Denver Broncos, missed out on an $8 million contract for the 2013 season after his agent failed to fax a signed contract to the team minutes before the deadline because his fax machine was broken. When the deadline passed and no signed contract was received, the team dropped him. Dumervil ended up at the Baltimore Ravens, with a different agent.

So why is the Fax machine a gadget that we miss? Because it was one of the gadgets that existed during the transformation from the analog to the digital age, and which made the communications revolution possible. Although they are little more than a tired cliche now, this gadget was instrumental in driving technology forward, with devices like scanners, high speed routers, printers and many others using technology that was first developed for Faxes.

Photo by Flickr user MattJiggins
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