Fax (short for facsimile, from Latin fac simile, “make similar,” that is, “make a copy”) is a telecommunication technology used to transfer copies (facsimiles) of documents, especially using affordable devices operating over the telephone network. The word telefax, short for telefacsimile, for “make a copy at a distance,” is also used as a synonym.
The fax machine is an example of a democratizing technology, allowing individuals with no access to printing presses or mass media outlets to produce and disseminate printed material. During the 1989 student protests at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, supporters with fax machines were able to spread news of the demonstrations throughout the country, and thus, considerably enhance their political impact.
A fax machine is essentially an image scanner, a modem, and a computer printer combined into a highly specialized package. The scanner converts the content of a physical document into a digital image, the modem sends the image data over a phone line, and the printer at the other end makes a duplicate of the original document.
Fax machines with additional electronic features can connect to computers, can be used to scan documents into a computer, and to print documents from the computer. Such high-end devices are called multifunction printers and cost more than fax machines.
Although fax machines of some sort or another have existed since the mid-late nineteenth century, modern fax technology became feasible only in the mid-1970s as the sophistication and cost of the three underlying technologies dropped to a reasonable level. Fax machines first became popular in Japan, where they had a clear advantage over competing technologies like the teleprinter; at the time, before the development of easy-to-use input method editors, it was faster to handwrite kanji than to type the characters. Over time, faxing gradually became affordable, and by the mid-1980s, fax machines were very popular around the world.
Although most businesses still maintain some kind of fax capability, the technology appears increasingly dated in the world of the Internet.
With advances in modern technology, some multifunction printers that include faxing capabilities can also internet fax in addition to printing, copying, scanning, and sending email.
Scottish inventor Alexander Bain is often credited with the first fax patent in 1843. He used his knowledge of electric clock pendulums to produce a back-and-forth line-by-line scanning mechanism.
Frederick Bakewell made several improvements on Bain’s design and demonstrated the device at the 1851 World’s Fair in London.
In 1861, the first fax machine, Pantelegraph, was sold by Giovanni Caselli, even before the invention of workable telephones.
In 1924, a designer for RCA, Richard H. Ranger, invented the wireless photoradiogram, or transoceanic radio facsimile, the forerunner of today’s “fax” machines. A photograph of President Calvin Coolidge sent from New York to London on November 29, 1924, became the first photo picture reproduced by transoceanic radio facsimile. Commercial use of Ranger’s product began two years later. Radio fax is still in common use today for transmitting weather charts and information.
An early method for facsimile transmission, the Hellschreiber, was invented in 1929 by Rudolf Hell, a pioneer in mechanical image scanning and transmission.
Prior to the introduction of the now ubiquitous fax machine, one of the first being the Xerox Qyx in the mid-1970s, facsimile machines (the word “fax” had not yet been coined) worked by optical scanning of a document or drawing spinning on a drum. The reflected light, varying in intensity according to the light and dark areas of the document, was focused on a photocell to be converted to an electrical signal varying in frequency. This audio tone was then transmitted using a common telephone handset inserted in an acoustic coupler serving as a modem. At the receiving end, the same technique (handset in acoustic coupler) converted the varying tone into mechanical movement of a pen or pencil to reproduce the image on a blank sheet of paper on an identical drum rotating at the same rate. A pair of these expensive and bulky machines could only be afforded by companies with a serious need to communicate drawings, design sketches or signed documents between distant locations such as an office and factory.
In 1985, Hank Magnuski produced the first computer fax board, called GammaFax.