The Fax Machine
For those of my vintage who work in an office environment we have witnessed a massive transformation of the technology deployed which, on the whole, have improved the efficiency of the operations immeasurably.
I well remember one of my bosses whose MO was supreme brinkmanship. When we were responding to bids and tenders, he would always leave matters to the last minute, necessitating I or another office junior to hare over to a major London rail terminus to put a packet of papers on to a train to be received at the other end by a frantic local manager. The introduction of a fax machine in the early 80s eradicated the need for this almost daily ritual. What it did mean, though, was that my boss delayed releasing the terms for a further three hours – result, local manager still on the verge of a nervous breakdown waiting for his instructions.
It is hard to credit it but there was an air of genuine excitement when the first fax machines were installed into the offices. Now of course, they are consigned to a dusty corner as they have been overtaken by the current method of instantaneous communication – the e-mail. One of the drawbacks of the fax was that over time the output faded so you were left with a file of blank papers – very handy if you had made a mistake!
There is a tendency to think of the fax machine as a relatively modern invention and, certainly, its adoption as a form of business communication didn’t really take off until the mid 80’s but, actually, it owes its origins to the experimentation of Alexander Bain. Bain, a Scotsman, was apprenticed as a clockmaker and invented the first electric clock. In 1843 – yes, 1843, he received a British patent for improvements in producing and regulating electric currents and improvements in timepieces and in electric printing and signal telegraphs. In other words, he had invented the fax machine, which used a stylus to scan a flat metal surface mounted on a pendulum, thus picking up the images on the surface. Bains’ machine combined clock mechanisms with telegraph technology.
At the Great Exhibition in 1851 Frederick Bakewell gave the first successful demonstration of a facsimile transmission using cylinders to transmit and receive images.
Giovanni Caselli conducted research into the telegraphic transmission of images and solved the problem of how to synchronise the transmission and receipt of images with his pantelegraph which, in 1860, sent the first fax between Paris and Lyon.
Ernest Hummel – another watchmaker – took the technology forward by, in 1895, developing the Telediagraph or copying telegraph which used synchronised rotating drums with a platinum stylus as an electrode in the transmitter. His machine was adopted by the newspaper industry and was used to transmit photographs – the first being “an accurate picture of the first gun fired at Manila” which took around thirty minutes to transmit. A German inventor, Arthur Korn, used selenium which is a light-sensitive element to convert the different tones of a scanned image into a variable electric current. The first commercial use of Korn’s system was adopted in 1907 and by 1910 Paris, London and Berlin were linked by facsimile transmission over the telephone.
Edouard Belin made the first telephoto transmission from Paris to Lyon to Bordeaux and then back to Paris in 1907 and his lab was the destination of the first trans-Atlantic transmission in 1921. In 1929 in a further refinement of the technology Rudolf Hell developed machines to control the engraving of printing plates electronically. The natural progression from this breakthrough was the photo-lettering system called digiset – the digital reproduction of text and pictures.
Faxes were being used to transmit photographs and then in the mid-1950s it was adopted by the US Weather Bureau to transmit analysis and prognostic weather charts.
With all this development you might be asking why it was not until the early 1980s that fax technology was adopted by the business sector. Well, what kick started it was the adoption of a standard protocol for sending faxes at rates of 9,600 bits per second in 1983 and the rest is history.
When you go into that cupboard at work and see a lonesome fax machine rotting in the corner, remember that it has a history of over 160 years. It is just that its wide-scale commercial utilisation lasted little over 15 years.