Long before the era of smartphones, there was a time when communication devices were limited to telegram messages. But an emergent technology was on the way that would allow people to send images and documents over telephone lines for the first time in history.
While it wasn’t named as such at the time, this was the first iteration of the fax machine. And while many think that fax machines emerged in the past few decades, it’s a much older invention with a surprisingly long history spanning from the 19th century.
So here’s everything to know about the modern fax machine, how it evolved into what we know today, and why this technology is so important for laying the groundwork for our modern communications-based world.
Who First Invented the First Fax Machine?
The first version of the fax machine was invented by the Scottish inventor and mechanic Alexander Bain in 1843. He was awarded a patent for advancements in generating and controlling electric currents, as well as enhancements in timekeeping, electric printing, and signal telegraphs.
How did Bain’s fax machine work?
Bain’s invention was for a “recording electric telegraph” that could send images over long distances. This worked by scanning a metal surface with a stylus attached to a pendulum. The scan detected and translated the image into electrical signals that could then be sent over a telegraph line.
The message was replicated at the receiving station using electrochemically sensitive paper infused with a chemical solution akin to the one devised for his chemical telegraph.
Alexander Bain was an amateur clockmaker and used parts from his clock mechanisms to alter telegraph machines and create his fax machine. This ingenious combination of his engineering skills and his understanding of electricity led to a new way to share images and documents.
A bit about the inventor and academic Alexander Bain
Bain became an influential figure in several fields, including education reform, moral philosophy, linguistics, logic, and psychology. He held prestigious positions at the University of Aberdeen and started the analytical philosophy-focused journal “Mind.”
But his fax machine invention was perhaps his most significant contribution to technology and emerged from his interests in telegraphy, electromagnetism, and electricity. The patent was filed 33 years before the invention, making it one of the earliest and most influential versions of modern communications.
In 2016, he received the prestigious Technology & Engineering Emmy Award posthumously, recognizing his groundbreaking contributions to image transmission.
Who Invented the First Modern Fax Machine?
The global corporation Xerox is credited for inventing the first modern fax machine, the LDX System, on May 5th, 1964. It was constructed in the company’s research center based in Webster, NY. This facsimile system used a cathode ray tube to generate images, and they also created a variant that could send images to computers for printing.
What made the LDX system revolutionary?
This technology was a step beyond previous technologies because of its ability to transmit copies between two locations through one of the following methods:
- A coaxial cable
- A microwave channel
- A telephone line
This made it possible to send faxes more flexibly and outside of dependent networks.
The LDX system also functioned on xerographic technology, which works by creating an electrical charge in the areas of a document that need to be inked onto paper.
This combination of technologies allowed for the machine to produce an accurate and detailed reproduction of an electronically transmitted document.
How similar is the LDX system to fax machines today?
Xerox’s LDX system could transmit regular-sized documents over long distances in about six minutes, marking a revolutionary step in communication technologies. Today’s fax machines may bear similarities to the LDX but have also undergone several improvements.
Modern fax machines are faster, more compact, and offer better image quality overall. They also use digital technology, which allows for data compression and hence quicker transmission times.
However, the fundamental purpose of transmitting scanned printed material, both text and images, remains the same between the LDX and modern-day fax machines.
Evolution of the Fax Machine
Here’s a chronological timeline of each major advancement that transformed the fax machine from a simple communication tool into the versatile machines we use today:
- 1843: Alexander Bain created an experimental facsimile machine with synchronized pendulums that could scan information from a metal plate.
- 1851: Frederick Bakewell further improved Bain’s design with rotating cylinders that resulted in a clearer sharper image.
- 1865: Giovanni Caselli presented the Pantelegraph in France. This technology used a regulating clock to synchronize the scanning of images for telegraphic transmission.
- 1924: A picture of Calvin Coolidge was wirelessly sent by Richard H. Ranger from New York to London. This was done with the Photoradiogram, a machine that could transmit signals remotely.
- 1924: Herbert Ives successfully transmitted the first color facsimile using color separations.
- 1964: The Xerox Corporation introduced the LDX System, which was the first commercial form of fax machine technology available. It was able to transfer a letter-sized document in about six minutes.
- 1966: Xerox’s revolutionary Magnafax Telecopier had the capability to connect to any telephone line and transmit a letter-sized document within a mere six minutes.
- 1974: The transmission time for a single-page fax was reduced to just three minutes.
- 1980: Japan’s NTT and KDDI developed the ITU G3 Facsimile Standard, leading to a surge in fax technology and establishing fax as one of the first truly universal communication methods.
- 1985: GammaLink introduced the first computer-based fax board, GammaFax, integrating computers into the global network of fax machines. This paved the way for broadcast faxing and small-scale fax management.
- 1995: InfoImaging Technologies introduced 3D Fax, a computer program designed for Microsoft Windows. Users could encode files into images, which could be printed and sent via a fax machine or directly transmitted from a computer equipped with a fax modem.
- 2010: The internet fax became accessible on Apple devices with the launch of the eFax iOS app. Users could now easily send faxes from their Apple devices.
- 2011: Just like Apple devices, eFax created a dedicated Android app. Android users could also now send faxes service on their mobile devices.
Fax Machines Today
Even with email and online messaging, fax machines continue to hold their ground, particularly in certain industries that require secure and immediate document transmission.
Businesses in the healthcare, legal, and financial sectors typically rely on fax machines for the secure transfer of sensitive documents, as faxing is considered more secure than email and is less prone to hacking.
Here are a few use cases for the modern day fax machine:
- Physical Records: Particularly in the medical and legal fields, fax machines provide a reliable method for transmitting physical records. These industries often require hard copies of documents for compliance purposes.
- Security Against Hackers, Malware, and Viruses: Compared to email and online methods, fax machines are less susceptible to cyber threats. This makes faxing a safer choice for businesses dealing with sensitive information.
- Updated Technology and Email Integration: Modern fax machines can integrate with email systems, allowing for digital transmission and storage of faxes. This feature combines the security of fax with the convenience of email.
- Older Businesses and Legacy Users: For businesses that have been around for a while, fax machines are familiar and trusted tools. They also cater to legacy users who may not be comfortable with newer technologies.
- Simplicity of Use: With a fax machine, you only need a number to send or receive documents. There’s no need for an internet connection or complex software.
- Long Distance Signatures: Fax machines allow for the transmission of signed documents over long distances, which is particularly useful for legal, real estate, and financial transactions where signatures are necessary.
- Reliability: Fax machines are known for their reliability. Unlike emails that can end up in the spam folder or get lost in transit, faxes are almost always delivered directly to the recipient.
- Confirmation of Receipt: Fax machines provide a confirmation page after successful transmission, providing proof of sending and receiving documents. This is critical for businesses needing confirmation of document delivery.
Setting up a modern fax machine
Learning how to use a fax machine is simple if you have the proper setup, which typically includes a landline and a fax machine.
However, in an era where many homes and businesses no longer have a landline, individuals and companies can still utilize fax machines and Multi-Function Printers (MFPs) through services like VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone services.
These services convert the analog signal typically sent over a phone line into a digital signal that can be sent over the internet. This digital conversion allows users to send and receive faxes via their computers or even mobile devices, integrating the traditional fax functionality with modern digital convenience.
VoIP phone services have bridged the gap between traditional faxing and the digital era, providing a secure, convenient, and cost-effective solution for businesses and individuals who still require fax capabilities.