Although the fax machine did not begin to see wide acceptance until the late 1970s, the device’s invention predated its popularity by almost 130 years. The original versions in the 19th century were telegraph-based, because they predated the telephone by a number of years. But this isn’t so absurd as it may sound, as the modern fax machine’s digital ones and zeros are somewhat analogous to the telegraph’s binary state (circuit open/closed).
The first fax machine was invented by a brilliant Scottish clockmaker named Alexander Bain who sent the world’s first picture-by-wire using analog telegraph technology in 1842. The Bain system used a chemically-treated roll of paper whose color would change to blue wherever electricity was passed through it. Timed by a pendulum, a stylus would move over an advancing roll of this paper, passing the telegraph’s electric signal through the paper as it went, thereby drawing out the dots and dashes of the signal. After gaining some wider attention, this invention incurred the wrath of Samuel Morse, who made the borderline claim that it infringed on his famous patent. Morse managed to block the progress of Bain’s invention with a legal injunction.
In 1847, an Englishman named Frederick Bakewell improved on Bain’s concept, but used a rotating cylinder in place of the pendulum, and didn’t use Morse code. The transmitting cylinder was covered with a thin sheet of tin foil, upon which the desired image had been drawn in a special non-conductive ink. A needle would then read the cylinder in a tight spiral as the cylinder spun, sending an electric current down the line wherever the ink didn’t interrupt the signal. On the receiving end, the chemically treated paper was wrapped around a similar cylinder spinning at the same speed, the electric current staining the paper at each interruption of the signal. Although having problems with timing, this method was able to transmit simple images over telegraph, such as handwriting and line drawings, rather than just printed morse code.
Some 14 years later in 1861, an Italian inventor named Giovanni Caselli further improved upon previous designs with his Pantelegraph, or “Universal Telegraph” machine. This machine was similar to the Bakewell design, but it also included a “synchronizing apparatus” to resolve problems with timing that had led to distorted images on the Bakewell design. This machine won the attention and praise of Emperor Napoleon III himself, who witnessed a demonstration of an early prototype of the device in 1860.
Several other designs appeared in subsequent years, including Elisha Gray’s Telautograph in 1888, which instantly reproduced any stylus movement at the receiving station onto a stationary sheet of paper. The Telautograph was used by banks and hospitals to allow patrons to sign forms from remote locations. But the first telephone-based fax machine would not appear until AT&T completed one in 1924, eighty-two years after Bain’s first facsimile machine.
True, fax technology is a creaking old dinosaur that doesn’t know it should be extinct by now, but as few as fifteen years ago, it was cutting-edge communication technology. It’s crazy to think that there were working, rudimentary fax machines as far back as 130 years ago, and it wasn’t until the recent popularity of the Internet and e-mail that the fax machine was truly rendered obsolete.