History of the Fax Machine

Fax machines are older than you think

Because fax machines didn't become commonplace until the late 1980s, a lot of people would be surprised to learn that the history of fax machines can be traced back as far as the mid 1800s. Samuel Morse got the ball rolling in 1836 when he invented the telegraph. Seven years later, after he had studied and made adjustments to the technology, a Scottish mechanic and clock maker named Alexander Bain was given a British patent for the first primitive fax machine.

While Bain is credited with inventing the basic technology of a fax machine, we must also give due respect to people such as Frederick Bakewell, Giovanni Casseli, Elisha Gray, Arthur Korn, and Edouard Belin; they helped improve and evolve the technology.

Bain combined his clock-making knowledge with Morse's telegraph system and came up with an invention that used a stylus attached to a pendulum. This device was passed over a metal-plated document to sense light and dark spots. The receiving unit also had a pendulum, which made a mark on chemically treated paper when an electric charge was received through a telegraph line.

A few years later, Bakewell, an English physicist, came up with a facsimile contraption that used revolving drums (cylinders) covered in tin foil to transmit pictures. An Italian physics professor named Caselli then came up with the first commercial fax system, which was used to transmit about 5,000 documents between Paris and various other French cities in 1865. This device was called a Pantèlègraphe, and was also a modification of Bain's original concept.

Gray, an American inventor, was next to enter the picture as he patented a facsimile transmission system that would later evolve into the Western Electric Company. Next up was Korn, who invented telephotography. This was a method used for manually breaking down and transmitting photographs over electrical wires. Korn sent the first inter-city fax of a photograph in 1907, when he transmitted from Munich to Berlin.

In 1925, the Frenchman Belin invented the Belinograph, which also used the cylinder method of sending a document. Belin placed an image on a drum and scanned it with a powerful beam of light that had a photoelectric cell. This cell converted the light and absence of light into transmittable electrical impulses. Belin's method would prove to be the best and would be adopted by all later versions of fax machines. In 1934, the Associated Press introduced a system for regularly transmitting wire photos.

During this time fax machines were quite cumbersome, difficult to operate, and costly. However, in 1966 the Xerox Company introduced the Magnafax Telecopier. Even though it weighed about 50 pounds, it was still a smaller machine that was easier to use and could be hooked up to any telephone line. This machine could transmit a letter-sized document in about six minutes. Nowadays that would be considered slow, but the invention was a major technological step in the history of fax machines. Many Japanese manufacturers jumped on board in the 1970s and started producing faster, smaller and more efficient fax machines for the world to use.

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