There is certainly no need for the vast majority of people, whether private individuals or business owners, to invest in a fax machine anymore. Especially when there are so many good alternatives. For example, you can use any smartphone and fax directly from the device with a free app like MaxEmail’s iPhone fax app (which lets you use the iPhone’s camera to import documents) or you can use the web.
What may surprise you is that the science of faxing has a much more venerable history than most people realize. This once ubiquitous office technology is perceived by many to be a relatively new one, a part of the digital age. In fact, the first fax in a form that we would recognize today was sent in the 19th century, in 1881. Earlier forms of fax technology were already in use before that. There was even a commercial fax service in operation between Lyon and Paris as early as 1865, and that service actually predates Alexander G. Bell’s historic first telephone call by 11 years.
It is almost 100 years since the very first color fax was successfully transmitted. This was done by AT&T as early as 1924. Another landmark event in the history of fax took place in the same year, when the first transatlantic photo image fax was sent from New York to London. Incidentally, the image was of US president, Calvin Coolidge.
Despite the availability of fax technology, the commercial world was slow to adopt it. The equipment was expensive, difficult to operate and transmission times were very slow. Xerox released a new prototype fax machine in 1964 to limited success. Two years later it streamlined the machine, and brought out what is arguably the world’s first commercially successful fax machine.
The Xerox Magnafax Telecopier was much simpler to use, and connected directly to the telephone line, but it was still very slow, taking about 6 minutes to transmit a letter-sized page. This meant usage was restricted, as it was cost prohibitive to send long faxes overseas.
Advancements like data compression made transmission times more acceptable from the 1970s onwards, and faxing enjoyed a boom. Fax machines became much smaller and less expensive to buy. For a time, faxing became the most widely used method of transmitting documents after snail mail.
Early commercial fax technology had quite a few downsides. To use the technology, companies had to have a dedicated telephone line for each fax machine. In general, inbound faxes could be received without supervision, provided there was sufficient paper, but sending outbound faxes normally needed continual human intervention. Sheets had to be fed into the machine one by one, and the sender had to wait while each one was transmitted.
Later, machines became much better, especially early hybrids, which combined faxing with photocopying. They could be controlled remotely, or work unattended, automatically redialing busy numbers. They could also share lines with standard telephones, with the fax answering calls when an inbound fax was detected.
However, even at their most sophisticated, fax machines and faxing technology were cumbersome and time consuming, and businesses and home users worldwide were quick to embrace the revolutionary expansion of the Internet and the widespread availability of email. While many of them will still have access to fax technology, almost always through multifunction printers, very few will use the fax function.
The most common reason for using fax technology in the present day is to add physical signatures to documents. Even that is becoming less common as people simply scan their signatures and can quickly add them to emailed documents, bypassing the need for faxing.
The fax machine was once a mainstay of business communications, but its time at the forefront was fairly short-lived. It is certain that traditional fax machines will eventually disappear, as they will be replaced completely by better options, such using smartphones or computers to manage faxes.