Fax | A Brief History of Sending a Facsimile in Telecommunications

Fax in the History of Telecom

Fax in contemporary times

Fax in the era of email, Pinterest, SnapChat, and Instagram, we’re constantly sharing pictures with people around the world.

Obviously, it wasn’t always this way. Alexander Bain, an amateur clockmaker, is credited as being the first to send images over telegraph wires.

His invention, the electric printing telegraph, was patented in 1843, and gave rise to what would later become known as fax machines.

Using his clockmaking skills and telegraph technology, Bain created a transmitter that used a stylus mounted on a pendulum to scan the images on a flat metal surface. Though he patented his invention, he never demonstrated it.

The first person to demonstrate facsimile technology was Frederick Bakewell at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. Bakewell used rotating cylinders to transmit and receive images.

The image to be transmitted was written on tinfoil which was wrapped around the transmitting cylinder. A pendulum-mounted stylus scanned the image’s surface, transmitting the signal to a receiving pendulum and cylinder wrapped with a chemically treated paper.

It took about a dozen years before the first commercial facsimile machine came into being. Giovanni Caselli invented the “pantelegraph” which blended an existing machine that could copy words and images, the pantograph, with the telegraph.

A regulating clock was used to improve the synchronization between the sending and receiving units.

In 1860, Caselli demonstrated his pantelegraph to none-other-than Napoleon. By 1865, the pantelegraph became the first commercial facsimile machine, transmitting images between Paris and Lyon, and later, to Marseilles in 1867.

As with many forms of technology, fax technology evolved over the years with numerous inventors contributing along the way.

For example, Edouard Belin’s 1913 Bélinographe incorporated an electric eye which measured the intensity of light to impress images onto photographic paper, much like modern laser printers and copiers do today.

The Bélinographe transmitted images over phone lines. In the early 1920s, the Bélinographe was modified to transmit images over radio waves.

Companies like Western Union, AT&T, and the Associated Press began using “radio photo” and “wire photo” services soon after.

The early wirephoto machines were large, expensive, and required dedicated telephone lines. More portable units were developed.

In some countries such as Japan and Israel, fax machines remain a crucial business and government communications technology.

In others, they have fallen out of favor due to newer, more effective telecommunications tools such as email and online file-sharing. Meanwhile, many businesses continue to rely on faxing due to regulatory requirements.

While you can go to any office supply or computer store and buy a fax machine, many people rely on yet another iteration of the fax machine, computer-based or online faxing.

Rather than using a dedicated machine to send or receive faxes, virtual faxing involves sending or receiving faxes via a computer or mobile device. Sending a fax in this manner typically involves uploading the document, entering the recipient’s fax number, and clicking the send button.

Receiving faxes involves linking a virtual fax number to an email address whereby any faxes sent to that number will be forwarded to the designated email address as a PDF attachment.

Fax machines have come a long way since a clockmaker first tinkered with the concept in the mid-1800s. They continue to play an important role in communicating across distances.

Global Virtual Numbers with International Fax Capabilities

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