The Fax Machine

Jan 31, 2014 by

Believe it or not, the fax machine was invented over 165 years ago, and the principle laid out in 1843 by its creator, Alexander Bain, is still at the heart of the modern fax.

Bakewell's improved Fax 1848

A Scottish clockmaker, Bain took a couple of pendulums, linked them with a wire and got them swinging in sync with each other. The message to be transmitted was written in an electrically conductive material, and a piece of paper then wrapped around a rotating drum. A needle was attached to one of the pendulums, and as this pendulum swung over the drum the needle picked up electrical impulses and transferred them along the wire to the other pendulum, which had a pen attached to it. This pendulum then reproduced the message. Ingenious! However, Bain never managed to make a transmission, and the first fax was not sent until 1851, when English physicist Frederick Bakewell used an improved version of Bain’s model in a demonstration at Britain’s Great Exhibition.

Example of CaselliĀ“s Typotelegraph in use between London and Liverpool

The first commercial fax line was set up by the french government in 1865. It used a machine invented by Italian abbot Giovanni Caselli, who based his ‘pantelegraph’ on Bain and Bakewell’s ideas. Napoleon III was a big fan, and supplied the necessary telegraph wires for the project to be implemented. The line ran from Paris to Lyon, but the job of popularising fax-machine use was tough thanks to stiff competition from the burgeoning telegraph industry. Big money was tied up in promoting the use of Morse code to pass messages, and people were inclined to believe the fax was only any good at transmitting images, not words. During his lifetime, Caselli saw the fax become virtually redundant before he died in 1891.

Merely a decade later in 1902, German scientist Dr Arthur Korn pioneered photoelectric scanning. Bain’s original principle remained, the difference was that a photoelectric scanner mapped the black and white parts of the document, eradicating the need for electrical conductivity. By the end of the decade, the fax machine had become integral to newspaper offices around the world, but interestingly it was over 40 years before other areas of commerce caught up. In fact, it was not until the early 1960s that faxing became the norm in most offices. In modern faxes, images are digitised and broken into a grid of dots, the data is transmitted down the line and once at the other end translated so the dots can be reproduced as an image.


…So there it is, all the facts about the fax.

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