The History of Fax Machines – Get the Message

Fax machines - new technology, right? Not so, my friend. Of course, they don't go back as far as the old smoke or drum signals used centuries ago. But they do go back over 150 years.

Fax machines (short for facsimile machines) are now an integral member of the office machine family, including the printer and the photocopier. However, the fax machine uses a different technology than the others. And when you discover the historic path of office machine technology, you'll see why the fax machine was the forerunner.

Alexander Bain had the "fax machine" going like clockwork

A Scottish inventor, Alexander Bain, began his career as an apprentice to a clockmaker. He actually invented the first electric clock, which had a pendulum powered by an electromagnet. This invention would come in handy when he started to think about transmitting messages. The fax machine he invented actually used clockwork principles and parts to operate.

In 1843, Bain patented his ideas for "improvements in producing and regulating electric currents and improvement in timepieces and in electric printing and signal telegraphs." He'd created a fax machine transmitter that used a stylus to scan a flat metal surface mounted on a pendulum, thus picking up the images on the surface. This machine used clock mechanisms combined with telegraph technology. (Samuel Morse had invented the telegraph just 7 years earlier.)

Other inventors improved on Bain's fax machine

The next major contributor to the development of the fax machine was Frederick Bakewell, an English physicist. In 1851, at the World's Fair in London, he made the first successful demonstration of a facsimile transmission. Bakewell's method differed from Alexander Bain's in that images were transmitted and received on cylinders, a method that was widely practiced through the 1960s.

Then came Giovanni Caselli, an Italian physics teacher. While teaching, he conducted research on the telegraphic transmission of images, an issue which had been a stumbling block for several researchers for quite a few years. What the previous inventors had failed to do was achieve a perfect synchronization between transmitting and receiving devices. Caselli worked for years and, after many instances of failure and government disinterest, perked the interest of the Chinese Empire with his pantelegraph, because it solved their problem of the telegraphic transmission of ideograms. The Japanese eventually caught onto this and developed it into the massive diffusion of the fax.

Next on the fax invention trail was Ernest A. Hummel, a watchmaker from St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1898, Hummel introduced what he called a copying telegraph, or Telediagraph, to the New York Herald. The Telediagraph used synchronized rotating drums, with a platinum stylus as an electrode in the transmitter. This was a valuable machine for newspapers and magazines because it sent pictures via telegraph lines.

By 1899, Hummel had improved the machine and it was placed in the offices of the Chicago Times Herald, the St. Louis Republic, the Boston Herald and the Philadelphia Inquirer. The first picture sent on the Telediagraph was "an accurate picture of the first gun fired at Manila", and took twenty to thirty minutes to send. Near-copies of this and similar mechanisms were in use until the 1970s, transmitting plain paper originals and photographs. The basic principle was also applied to stencil-cutting machines for ink duplicators.

Then onto the scene came Arthur Korn, with his photoelectric telephotography. Korn, a German inventor, used the light-sensitive element selenium to convert the different tones of a scanned image into a varying electric current. Commercial use of Korn's system began in Germany in 1907. By 1910, Paris, London and Berlin were all linked by facsimile transmission over the telephone network.

Edouard Belin was the next to contribute. He was a French engineer who, in 1907, made the first telephoto transmission from Paris to Lyon to Bordeaux and back to Paris. The first transatlantic transmission was made in 1921 between Annapolis, MD and Belin's lab at La Malmaison, France. His equipment was used almost exclusively by European news media during the 1930s and 40s. The term "Belino" came into general use for all kinds of picture transmission.

Then the big guns arrived - American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T). In 1924, as a result of their improved telephone facsimile technology, the telephotography machine was used to send political convention photos long distance for newspaper publication.

Then, in 1929, Rudolf Hell, another German inventor, developed his machines for electronically-controlled engraving of printing plates. A natural progression of this invention was his electronic photo-lettering system called "digiset" - digital reproduction of text and pictures.

News would be followed by the weather...and more

While the first uses of fax machines were to transmit and receive photos from around the world, weather services followed. In 1955-56, the Weather Bureau developed a weather facsimile network using fulltime leased lines. This network enabled the transmission of analysis and prognostic weather charts, eliminating the tedious process of encoding a message of five-figure groups on the charts.

The spark that really ignited the fax revolution was the adoption in 1983 of a standard protocol for sending faxes at rates of 9,600 bps (bits per second). This standard became known as the Group 3 standard. Recently, a Group 4 standard has emerged, but it requires ISDN lines. ISDN stands for Integrated Services Digital Network in which the same time-division switches and digital transmission paths are used to establish connections.

Fax machines were the ideal medium for "shrinking" the world. Today, faxes are used as an inexpensive, fast and reliable method for transmitting correspondence, contracts, resumes, handwritten notes and illustrations. And now you can buy an "all-in-one" printer, which includes a printer, a scanner, a photocopier, and a fax machine.

So modern technology is constantly being developed to provide us with the office machines that make our lives simpler. Fax machines, together with printers and photocopiers, are just a few of these machines. And they're all designed to send our images wherever we want, whenever we want. Get the message?

About The Author

Gareth Marples is a successful business writer providing tips and advice for consumers. His numerous articles offer moneysaving tips and valuable insight on typically confusing topics.

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