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STARS-Proposal:Fax Machines

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Author: Jonathan Coopersmith


1843 First patent on facsimile transmission by Alexander Bain in Britain
1863 First commercial facsimile operating system by Abbe Caselli in France
1904 First facsimile transmission by telephone by Arthur Korn in Germany
1925 First commercial wirephoto system by ATT
1927 First international fax service between Germany and Austria
1928 First Japanese fax system
1935 Introduction of AP wirephoto service
1965 Introduction of the Xerox Telecopier
1977 Introduction of the Japanese READ fax standard
1980 Approval by the CCITT of the Group 3 fax standard
1986 Introduction by Gammalink of the PC faxboard
1997 Peak of fax machine sales in the United States
2000 Peak of fax machine sales in Japan


The basic concept of a fax machine -- a machine that electrically transmits an image -- has not changed since 1843. The three main components were, and remain, the scanner-transmitter, the transmitting medium, and the receiver-recorder. What has changed are its enabling and supporting technologies, the social environment, its competition, and the expectations and assumptions of its promoters and users.

Facsimile’s history was in some sense a history of the telecommunications, electronics, and computer industries. Without them, there would be no fax industry. Three broad intertwined technical trends appeared in the century and a half of fax history. First, the complexity of fax equipment vastly increased over time. Second, as machines became more sophisticated, they became "black boxes," their technical aspects increasingly hidden from view. Third, they became easier to use while increasing in capability.

For most of its long history, facsimile was a concept in search of implementation, an impractical solution in search of a feasible problem. The concept dates back to Alexander Bain’s 1843 patent. The first commercial service began (and ended) in the 1860s, but the first profitable service appeared only after World War I. The mid-1960s saw the first sustained efforts to produce fax machines for general business use. Not until the 1980s, however, did fax catch on and become an essential communications tool, first in Japan, followed by the United States, and then the rest of the world. By 2000, however, e-mail and the WorldWide Web had rendered the fax machine obsolescent though not obsolete.


References of Historical Significance

References for Further Reading

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Coopersmith is an Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University, where he teaches the history of technology. This article is part of his larger research on the history of the fax machine from the 1840s to the present. Coopersmith has also written about the electrification of Russia, the intertwining of pornography and communications technologies, and the importance of failure in technology.