Tuesday, December 2, 2008


One of the greatest inventions in history, aside from sliced bread, was the telefacsimile, or fax machine. For bringing this to my attention, I thank my friend and fellow geek, Chicago lawyer, Ben Cohen, who actually gave a presentation on this subject to the Bar Association. Shortly thereafter, all those lawyers were tippling in the other bar.

Most people assume the facsimile machine is a relatively new invention from the
1980's, but in fact it was invented in England by Alexander Bain in 1843. That was more than 30 years prior to the invention of the telephone by Elisha Gray, uh, excuse me, by Alexander Graham Bell (see KENSUSKINREPORT Sept. 9, 2008). Actually Gray, who founded the Western Electric Company, and died in 1901, did obtain a patent for a facsimile transmission system in the 1800's.

Bain was a Scottish clockmaker who used clock mechanisms to transfer an image from one sheet of paper to another. His invention consisted of two pens connected to two pendulums, which were joined to a wire which was able to reproduce writing on an electrically conductive surface. It was called the "automatic electrochemical recording telegraph". The name alone would scare away most potential investors.

In 1862, the Italian physicist, Giovanni Caselli invented the Panetelegraph, using Bain's invention with a synchronizing apparatus. It was the first telefax machine to be used commercially. Caselli introduced the first commercial telefax service between Paris, Lyon and Marseilles which was used by the French Post & Telegraph agency through the 1860's. Remember, the telephone was still 10 years in the future.

In 1902, the German inventor, Arthur Korn created telephotography to transmit still photographs over electrical wires. He transmitted a photo from Munich to Berlin in 1907. He achieved fame by transmitting a wanted-person photograph from Paris to London in 1908.

In 1925, the French inventor Edouard Belin improved further on this system with the "Belinograph" which placed an image on a cylinder and scanned it with a powerful light beam with a photoelectric cell to convert light into transmittable electrical impulses. All subsequent and modern fax machines use this Belinograph process.

Another amazing device from that era was the transoceanic radio facsimile, invented by RCA designer Richard H. Ranger in 1924. The lone Ranger transmitted a photograph of President Coolidge (unsmiling, of course) from New York to London that year. Radio fax is still used today for transmitting weather charts and information. The same year Herbert Ives of AT&T transmitted the first color facsimile.

In 1934, the Associated Press began transmitting "wire photos" and newspapers began running instant photos transmitted from afar.

A competing technology was the Hellschreiber, invented in 1929 by German electrical engineer Rudolf Hell. It never caught on in the U.S. Maybe the name had something to do with that. Hell's device was used by the German military in World War II where, of course, it raised you know what. Seriously, in Germany, Hell was a well known businessman and inventor who also pioneered television technology. He helped operate an early television station in Munich in 1925. When Hell died in 2002 at age 100, the Mayor of Kiel, Germany, described Hell as "the Edison of the graphic industry". His company became part of the German manufacturing giant Siemens.

Aside from news organizations and government, fax machines were not used much in the business world because they were cumbersome, expensive and difficult to operate. In 1966, Xerox introduced the Magnafax Telecopier, a smaller, 46 pound facsimile machine which could be connected to any telephone line. Although it took 6 minutes to transmit a single letter sized document, it was a start, and the businesses that used it were crazy about it because they didn't know better. You could fly a 50 page document from New York to Los Angeles faster than you could fax it. By 1973, there were 30,000 fax machines in the U.S.

Leave it to old fashioned Japanese ingenuity, however. In the late 1970's, the Japanese companies created a new generation of faster, smaller and more efficient fax machines, and within a few years, this revolution reached virtually every office in America and worldwide. Revolution it was. In 1983, the number of fax machines in the U.S. had jumped to 300,000 and then exploded to 4 million by 1989.

As you can see from this brief history, there's not much new under the sun. The bottom line is that the telefax kept a low profile for much of its history until innovators could create a smaller, cheaper, faster model which the public would buy.




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