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The Fax Machines of the 1800s

Article #10 • Written by Alan Bellows

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.

Article written by Alan Bellows, published on 20 September 2005. Alan is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

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Posted 18 July 2006 at 12:11 pm

I'm still amazed today at how many places ask me to fax them documents... I don't own a working fax machine and it is so much faster to e-mail the document itself than to put up with the fax machine itself.

I find it amazing that Bain's system was construed as an infringement on Morse Code.

Posted 30 April 2007 at 12:11 pm

That's amazing! Wow, and to think, no one knows about these guys, but they sound just brilliant.

Posted 29 October 2007 at 10:00 am

I'd think the telautograph would be more secure than a fax, or digital storage is it directly duplicates a unique event. I hate fax machines. I really really do.

As for the infringement, it seems like a pretty weak case to me, and probably would get past the examiners these days. Seems pretty darn different prima facie, but then, it was a long time ago, and things were different then.

Posted 14 July 2008 at 09:41 pm

Enter your reply text here. OK
//////////////////Alchemist #3 October 29th, 2007 10:00 am
I'd think the telautograph would be more secure than a fax, or digital storage is it directly duplicates a unique event. I hate fax machines.///////////////////////

America, why do we let cheap Chineese (yes, China is a great nation) components enter our fabric of life making things unreliable. Proud contrarian I am, E-mail is slow with to many tiny steps. Easyier to dial a # and be specific by phone. Our "state of the art" always has faults compared to, well, before we went cheap.

Example. $80,000.00 city fire works dies because coffie was spilled on a computer. Matches won't work.

I hate e-mail because it slows me down, but still use it.

An American or Japanese fully made computer. That's one that will work. But I'll still use my 1888 based autograph sending machine.

Posted 26 July 2009 at 11:39 pm

DanThinksDances&femaleGspot, i cant understand anything ur trying to say..

Posted 30 March 2012 at 11:13 pm

I don't think they're obsolete. I agree with Drakvil; I just got my first "creaking old dinosaur" last year, and I use it regularly.

I'm interested to hear about 3-D fax machines, the ones that scan objects, then send the dimensions, so the receiving machine can carve a piece of plastic into the same shape. No practical applications yet, as I understand, but maybe someday.

Posted 18 August 2014 at 12:26 pm

An old man came in to the store I work at to fax some documents. After a moment of fussing with the documents he said to me "This technology is moving ahead faster than an old man can handle!" If only he'd known that the machine he was working with was invented before he was even born!

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