The fax has been a way of life for businesses and consumers for years. It hasn’t always been so, however. When was it invented? And how does it work, anyway? Get all your fax facts here.
What is a fax machine?
The fax, or “facsimile,” machine sends text or graphic messages from a scanner through the phone line to a printer, which can print out the message on standard paper for the recipient to read. Since the phone lines can only pick up audio, the data is converted into tones and frequencies that the fax interprets as black or white, forming the overall composition of the page.
The fax has also been called a “telecopy” or “telefax” machine in its earlier days, but most people just call it a fax now. While it was a stand-alone piece of equipment in its infancy, today’s faxes are often bundled together with printer and scanner technology. Many HP all-in-ones
, for example, feature print, fax, copy, and scan capabilities, since these tasks are closely related in how they work. You can also send and print out full-color faxes in more vibrant detail than ever before.
When was the fax machine invented?
The first recognizable version of what we consider the telephone fax was invented in 1964 by the Xerox company, but the technology that led to that advancement was created much earlier. In fact, it was Alexander Baine in 1843 who invented the electric printing telegraph. His development simulated a 2D image on paper, taking the limited communication potential of the telegraph to another level .
Baine’s invention wasn’t widely tested but was the catalyst for several improved versions. Those include one by Frederick Blakewell in 1847 and another by Giovanni Caselli, who made the first commercial fax system in 1863 .
Of course, all of this differed widely from what we know as the fax today. In 1902, the optical scan function was developed by Arthur Korn, which allowed photos to be transmitted and revolutionized the newspaper industry. AT&T further advanced things with wire transmission of photographs in 1924, and RCA made this same tech wireless in the same year. Color fax was invented that year as well, again by AT&T .
By the end of the 1970s, faxes were considered standard business equipment, and companies continued to develop their products to do more. The early ‘80s brought the copy and scan function to fax machines, creating the very first all-in-one devices. These were peak years for faxing, and these faxes were used for all types of office communication, until cell phones began to replace landlines in the late ‘90s.
Consumer use of faxes declined as landlines in homes became less common. However, some industries, such as healthcare, insurance, finance, and tech, still rely on faxes to send secure communications that adhere to strict privacy policies, such as HIPAA .
Internet faxing arrived in 2010. While most consumers don’t have a fax machine in the home, some still wanted the same level of security and speed when sending documents. As a result, companies used cloud-based servers and internet phone numbers to send and receive faxes. Anyone with a computer or phone could email their fax information for transmission via the same fax technology we've used for decades.
How does a fax machine work?
The fax process takes images of text or graphics and translates them into data that can be sent over the modern phone lines. But what actually happens?
- First, the sending fax or computer scans a document one horizontal line at a time, looking for shades of light and dark
- Each line is given a binary code of 0s and 1s, just like in standard computer code, with white getting 0 and black or shaded getting 1
- Each pixel scanned from the page is counted and assigned a binary code value that will then be sent a bit of data at a time
- These bits are decoded at the receiving fax or computer and printed out in the order received to recreate the image or text exactly
All of this needs to happen quickly, so faxes use data compression to reduce the number of bits that need to be sent and the time spent sending and processing them. That’s why newer fax machines can create messages almost instantaneously, while older machines can take several minutes to receive the same message. It took almost six minutes to send a one-page fax in 1968 .
Can you email to a fax machine?
Most of us don’t have fax machines at home, and when it comes time to send a document via this method, it’s a pain to trek to the office supply center or the public library. That’s one of the reasons all-in-one printers have become such useful home office machines. But not everyone has access to one, and they’re not ideal for when you’re on-the-go.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could fax via your computer? Now you can. The invention of internet fax has made it possible for computers to communicate with fax machines and vice versa. While most of us rely on email, faxes remain important for highly-regulated industries, such as health care and the legal profession.
Whether you send it through a computer software program or mobile app, you can scan and send documents as email attachments, such as TIFF or PDF files. There’s no need to waste any paper or ink. Virtual fax machines are a way for those without fax machines to cheaply send secure transmissions to fax recipients worldwide. And even if you have access to a fax, the virtual counterparts are still incredibly useful in certain situations, like when you’re commuting or traveling for work.
Will fax machines always be around?
The fax technology used by the general population has evolved so much over time. The basic premise of taking an image, deconstructing it, sending it through the phone or internet, and reassembling it onto the printed page isn’t likely to go away.
Even though many of us no longer use landline phones, the fax has a purpose. We will probably see it adapt more, and we may even bid farewell to those clunky stand-alone faxes in favor of slimmer all-in-ones and cloud service providers.