Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine

Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine, by Jonathan Coopersmith

Facsimile, copying-telegraph, pantelegraph, radiophotogram, picture telegraph—the terms suggest that the fascination for sending images over a distance is as old as instantaneous electromechanical communication itself, and has tracked communications technology evolution. Of course, fax didn’t become widely adopted until the 1980s. While some reasons for the delay were technological, starting in the 1970s delays were also due to large players stuck in old business models that would be threatened by fax, just as Xerox fumbled the PC because the PC was pioneering technologies that were existential threats to Xerox’s paper-copier-centric business model.

The world’s oldest fax message (1848), made on Frederick Bakewell’s Copying Telegraph, is in the archives of London’s Institution of Engineering and Technology. Bakewell and other Europeans demonstrated various prototypes in the late 19th century based on a common principle: a stylus dipped in caustic soda was used to etch away varnish on tinfoil, a sensor moving across the foil completed a circuit when it touched an etched-away area, and the resulting impulse sent by telegraph would trigger the lowering onto paper of a synchronized stylus at the other end. An improved 1906 prototype by Dr. Arthur Korn in Munich used a light beam reflected off of an arbitrary image onto selenium (whose conductivity varies with illumination), eliminating the need to hand-create a tinfoil master. But in all cases, the receiving stylus had to move across and down the paper in synchrony with the sender, which was the hard part about getting the machinery right. The technology remained too expensive and unreliable for all but the most elite customers.

WW1 stimulated technology development, as wars will, and by the early 1930s the reflected-light method of scanning was good enough to criticize, though synchronization of sender and receiver was still a challenge, now somewhat mitigated by electronics. RCA Corporation made international news when it saved the Boston Symphony Orchestra by arranging an overseas fax of a Sibelius score that had failed to arrive in the US by mail in time for the performance. By the mid 1930s, a few newspapers, Life magazine, and the International News Photos agency, among others, were using the technology to deliver photo images instantaneously. This practice established news photography as an essential part of journalism as newspapers faced competitive pressure from radio and television. By 1960 the fax enabled international newspapers: a completed page layout could be faxed to anywhere there was a printing facility. However, the combination of high long-distance telephony costs and equipment incompatibility stubbornly impeded wider fax adoption: Western Union’s Telex service (introduced 1932) and the later WW2 development of teleprinters (e.g. Teletype) were far less expensive for short messages, and by 1940 there were fewer than a thousand fax transmitters and receivers. (At the time, remote transmission of a picture within Europe cost between 1 and 4 pounds, and trans-Atlantic transmission could cost tens of dollars.)

In addition, faxing still required scanning the whole page, so a blank sheet of paper with a dot in the middle took the same amount of time (and data transmission) to fax as a complex drawing. Because of the high costs, fax terminal technology improved through the 1960s, but faxing remained a service rather than a product, and was often operated by companies locked into old business models or lacking imagination or both. Western Union’s Desk-Fax was used by the Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central to fulfill multi-segment Pullman reservations in minutes, yet it relegated the fax to a fraction of its technological potential by positioning it solely as an adjunct to its successful flagship telegram service. Xerox positioned its fax machines as “long distance xerography,” but tried to price fax like copiers, in which the equipment is leased and the company charges for paper; the lower paper use of fax doomed the model. Vendors built deliberately incompatible equipment to protect their franchises, believing that users didn’t want to communicate with outside companies (imagine if your Verizon phone was only able to call other Verizon phones). Overall, the combination of high long-distance telephony costs and equipment incompatibility stubbornly impeded further fax adoption.

Yet just as with cloud computing arriving in 2007, a series of independent events on the horizon in the 1960s opened the way for a fax takeover: 

  • the invention of the high speed xerographic copier by (ironically) Xerox in 1965; 
  • the deregulation of the telephone networks in the US in 1968 (the Carterfone decision) and Japan in 1972;
  • Claude Shannon’s groundbreaking 1948 development of information theory, which would soon lead to a recasting of faxing as encoding dots, rather than scanning a fixed area, thereby reducing data transmission needs;
  • the 1952 appearance of the Huffman code (inspired by Shannon’s work), whose data compression properties would further reduce data transmission needs and would be central to the world-changing G3 fax standard;
  • the rise of overnight delivery services such as FedEx, which trained consumers to expect instant communication;
  • research at Fairchild Camera and Instrument on charge-coupled devices (CCDs), which would eventually revolutionize all digital imaging, including fax. (Ironically, Xerox had been partnering in this research but later withdrew from the effort.)

One of the most important convergences of the above threads was the development and adoption of the “G3” fax standard, whose crucial innovation was that a fax machine would scan a document, represent it and compress it digitally, then use a modem (digital-to-analog converter for sending data over wired phone lines) to transmit the image, which would be converted back to digital and decompressed by the receiver. One key aspect of compression was “2d scanning”—statistical prediction of the next line based on the current one, in contrast to the existing “1d scanning” in which each line was scanned and encoded in isolation. Both the image conversion and the 2d scanning required more compute power and RAM than would have been practical for a consumer product in the 1960s-1970s, but by the 1980s microprocessors had made it possible. Similarly, while thermal paper was a transitional technology, Xerox’s high speed marking engines for photocopiers could image onto plain paper, and fax machines were able to adopt that technology. This was a dramatic change from the “fax as a service” model: a consumer purchased a fax machine in a big-box store that was not expected to provide service or support, took it to the office, plugged it into a phone line, and fed it regular copier paper (which most offices already had). Fax went from a service to a product by the early 80s. By 1983 virtually all fax service bureaus in New York had gone out of business, while existing copy-shops had added fax machines to their offerings.

Importantly, the Japanese market was more eager for fax since the pictographic writing of that language did not lend itself to short-message transmission as Telex or telegrams did. Japanese companies would quickly dominate the consumer fax market by working with international bodies to promote compatible fax standards that would enable a market. While American companies can be blamed for missing the boat, many of them thought fax was already a dying technology because they saw the rapid rise of PCs in the late 1970s and early 1980s leading to a paperless office. As it turned out, it took over two decades for that vision to truly take hold. During that time, because of the hesitation to act and because of Japan’s new prowess in high tech R&D, Japanese companies took over the fax market. Some American companies were instead working on G4, which would be purely digital and integrate with the under-development OSI telecommunications stack and ISDN digital phone/data service. However, OSI was soon steamrolled by TCP/IP, ISDN was quickly supplanted by other home data service technologies such as cable modem, and G3 kept getting improvements over time (the standard was designed to allow such improvements to be integrated without breaking backwards compatibility) that made G4’s promises uncompelling, so G4 died a quiet death and G3 was the last major fax standard, until fax faded away as a technology in the early 2000s.

Once a technology becomes absorbed into the mass market, it has societal effects. Just as in the 1930s, fax transformed the news business by allowing, for example, political candidates to respond in near-real-time to an opponent’s quote or address. Everyday people started faxing each other jokes, love letters, even marriage proposals. A fax machine to God was set up at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. The easier dissemination of information somewhat helped the spread of democracy in places like Panama, Poland, and ultimately the Soviet Union. US courts began allowing faxed documents to be as legally binding as originals.

Bad actors also came out in force. Fax machines don’t transmit watermarks, so some kinds of document fraud were easier. And it wasn’t long before fax spam (“junk faxes”) and unsolicited fax advertisements appeared. This is more intrusive than email spam because it costs the recipient paper and toner.

In the late 1980s, integrated faxmodems started to appear in PCs, outselling fax machines by 1994. But fax software was hard to use compared to the simple fax machine, didn’t work with all faxmodems (fax transmissions had been standardized, but PC-to-modem interfaces hadn’t), and users were confused. This remained the case until WinFax was built into Windows 95, providing a single built-in solution for software faxing. Meanwhile, the technophiles who had previously predicted that phone-based fax was a backward-looking technology were now certain they were right: shouldn’t email and other electronic communication render fax entirely obsolete? Unfortunately, like fax software, email software and document formats were often clumsy and proprietary (PDF wasn’t invented until 1993) and email systems of the time didn’t handle attachments well. So fax remained a popular way to get information delivered on demand until the mid 1990s. Fax machines were easy to use and they worked; as happens so often, that was enough to keep them entrenched against email and fully-paperless communication until the late 1990s, when the Web exploded (and in certain areas like medicine and law where a facsimile of a handwritten signature still carried authority that a digital document did not). (Faxing did, though, pave the way for those other communication media by strengthening the expectation that you could get information on-demand any time you wanted.) The switchover was complete when bad actors switched from junk faxes to email spam.

Where are they now? Derivatives of Huffman coding—variable-length prefix codes—are used in pkzip, JPEG, and MP3 compression. Many of the leading engineers at Fairchild Camera and Instrument would eventually go on to found the “Fairchildren”, the companies that seeded Silicon Valley, including AMD, Intel, Intersil, and National Semiconductor. The Carterfone decision made it legal to connect whatever you want to your phone lines, leading to the proliferation of low-cost direct-connect modems and dial-up ISPs that fueled the explosion of the consumer Internet in the late 1990s.