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Fax Technology From the 1840s to the Present


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Do you ever wonder how people survived in the past without a certain technology?

Send a fax online, for example, and you may find yourself reflecting on life before faxing. The introduction of the fax machine shifted how the world works, setting the stage for the fast-paced business environment that we know today.

Before fax machines came onto the scene, sending a document required hiring a courier or package delivery service – especially if the document needed to arrive the next day.

Deliveries within the same geographic area were fairly quick, but what if you wanted to get a file from, say, Los Angeles to Seattle? Very rarely would it happen overnight, unless you sent one of your employees to Seattle (and even that might be pushing it).

Telegraph Machine

A model of a telegraph machine – the technical precursor to the first fax machine-like device.

Luckily, the fax machine has changed all of that. While faxes didn’t become mainstream until the 1980s, the technology behind faxing was actually created in 1843 by a little-known Scotsman named Alexander Bain. Bain adapted the telegraph machine – invented just eight years earlier in 1835 – by making “improvements in producing and regulating electric currents and improvements in timepieces and in electric printing and signal telegraphs”.

Bain’s device used a stylus mounted on a pendulum that would scan a flat metal surface containing images. Since the mid-1800s, the fax machine has been improved upon by many different inventors:

  • 1850 – F.C. Blakewell invents the copying telegraph
  • 1860 – The first fax is sent between Paris and Lyon using a pantelegraph, invented by Giovanni Caselli
  • 1895 – A watchmaker from America named Ernest Hummel invents the telediagraph
  • 1902 – Dr. Arthur Korn invents the photoelectric system
  • 1914 – Edouard Belin realizes the benefits of using remote fax for journalism
  • 1924 – Politicians start using the telephotography machine (developed by AT&T) to send political convention photographs to newspapers
  • 1926 – RCA creates the Radiophoto to fax documents using radiowaves
  • 1947 – The first successful fax machine as we know it is invented by Alexander Muirhead
  • 1955 – The first transcontinental radio fax transmission is sent

More recently, the biggest development in faxing has been online fax technology. Sending faxes via the internet saves paper and makes document management vastly easier – particularly when multiple documents must be sent at once.

The next time you are sending a fax, think about those who brought this technology to fruition. You may catch yourself asking, “How did we live without it?”

Featured image courtesy of Flickr user Cliff.

Originally published Oct 18, 2013, updated Aug 20, 2021

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