The fax machine is a legitimate antique.
The history of fax shares its origins with the first-ever Christmas cards and the day when William Wordsworth was accepted as Poet Laureate. It was a time when Charle Dickens wrote and Karl Max plotted revolution. An era when London was about 20% of the size it is now, surrounded by fields and farmland.
It’s incredible to think that technology born 50 years before Winston Churchill is still not only alive and kicking, but also continues to be widespread — used by millions of businesses across the world.
It’s incredible but also concerning.
How could a relic like fax continue to play such an important role in the modern era?
Did you know that 75% of the US medical sector’s document transmissions happen over fax? It’s a mind-blowing figure when you consider the scale of the US healthcare industry. This isn’t just doctor’s offices and hospitals, it’s all their suppliers, research labs and secondary services, too.
Thousands of facilities are using technology that is also found in the Smithsonian History Museum.
So where did fax start and how has the fax machine lasted so long when other technology of its time has so willingly perished?
eFax explores the history of fax.
Origins of the Fax Machine: The History of Fax
The year the fax machine was invented was 1843. Scottish inventor Alexander Bain began experimenting with his new technology, setting forward a patent and developing the fax machine in the direction of the device as we know it to this day.
His early work was a little more rudimentary than the hardware we’re familiar with — it could only transmit an image through projecting it onto a surface close by.
However, this concept was improved upon over the years by a series of other inventors. Frederick Bakewell was the man that took Bain’s original technology and developed it into a system that could transmit clear images. But it was Giovanni Caselli that demonstrated the full capabilities of the fax machine to none other than Napoleon’s son, Napoleon II, in 1860.
Nearly two decades before the advent of the telephone — and nearly two decades after Bain first envisioned the idea of the fax machine — Caselli was able to transmit pictures over a wired connection, which allowed for long-distance communication of images.
And thus the fax machine was born.
At this time, faxing was still limited in its capabilities because of the requirements of a wired connection and a lack of infrastructure to enable this. For decades after, fax remained expensive and rare. Continued developments made fax more and more viable as a technology, but the change was slow and it slowed down even more during war times.
However, as developments continued, the fax machine became much more accessible and affordable, which paved the way for the heyday of fax.
Fax Machines in Their Prime
Xerox is credited as the force that took the fax machine mainstream, with the advent of its Long Distance Xerography (LDX) technology in 1964 and subsequent Magnafax Telecopier machine launched 1966 to utilise the LDX system.
LDX essentially let any fax be sent over any phone line.
Since, by this point in history, phones had been installed in nearly every business and home, fax went from being a technology that required very specific communication pathways and wiring to being a system that anyone could use.
Xerox’s invention quickly transformed the fax landscape. Within a few years, businesses began manufacturing better quality fax machines that were cheaper, faster and more efficient.
The fax machines arms race had begun.
The number of fax machines in use skyrocketed from this point onward, facing an upward trajectory that would last just over two decades. At the dawn of the 70s, around 25,000 fax machines were being used in the USA, a major increase on the early 60s numbers.
By the 1990s, that number grew to 5 million fax machines.
Fax became the commercial system for document transmission. It was everywhere, in all businesses across the developed world. From the UK to the USA and Germany to Japan, the fax machine was the undisputed market leader.
No obligation. No set-up fees. No risk.
Fax Has Not Died a Natural Death
The growth of the fax machine aligns with the lifecycle of many other technologies of the past and the current era. It’s not uncommon for new hardware and software to go from zero to hero in a few short years.
Just look at smartphones.
However, there is always a cut-off point. Eventually, the technology becomes obsolete as new developments seek to replace it and the movement dies. For example, in the 80s, 5 billion floppy disks were sold annually. In 2020, the floppy disk is no longer produced.
This is the kind of trend technology normally follows, but fax machines have proved an exception to the rule.
Despite being a technology that peaked in the same era as the floppy disk, fax machines remain in constant use while floppy disks died their natural deaths, replaced first by CD ROMs and then by digital download files.
The survival of the fax machine is not normal. It’s become outdated, residing in technology museums while manufacturing of the hardware continues. And this isn’t because there is no replacement technology available. We have computers and email, which serve as updates on the fax machine’s basic principles, so why is it that fax didn’t die alongside other tech of its generation?
The simple answer is that fax is too valuable to leave in the annals of history.
Let’s take a look at another example: phones.
Phones were invented around the same time as the fax machine, yet we still rely on phone calls daily for all facets of life. The difference is that the way we make phone calls has changed a lot. We have smartphones now, we don’t rely on the original technology that introduced calling as a practice.
But for fax, that’s not the case. To send a fax, most people use fax machines, which have remained largely unchanged for half a century.
It’s like making a phone call on an old landline dial-up phone. You just wouldn’t do it these days. So why hasn’t fax developed the same sort of technology?
Cloud Fax: The Fax Machine Reborn
Cloud fax is to fax what smartphones are to phone calls.
The next level, the advancement in technology that makes life easier.
Like smartphones, Cloud Fax is entirely digital. It uses digital technology to increase security and productivity and introduces a range of new features that make old school fax machines look like the dinosaurs they are.
Cementing its similarity to smartphones, cloud fax is compatible with older technology. Those left behind in the outdated era of phones can still receive a call from your smartphone and those who still use outdated fax machines can still send faxes to and receive faxes from a cloud fax system.
The technology converts the transmitted data automatically.
So why hasn’t cloud fax replaced fax machines entirely and become the next step in the history of the fax machine?
It’s all about uptake.
Millions of businesses currently use eFax instead of fax machines in 2020, but there are still tens of millions that don’t. Cloud fax is widely and easily available. Access isn’t the problem, the issue is awareness and people’s willingness to change.
The future of fax is in the cloud. The history of fax is still being written. As we move through the 21st-century, we are set to remove fax machines from the picture entirely and move fax into the digital era where it belongs.
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