Business communications have evolved dramatically over time. If there’s ever any doubt, watch a movie from the 1990s with children and try to explain what, exactly, a pager does. This explanation is guaranteed to lead into a conversation about payphones and how novel it seemed to finally be able to carry a mobile phone the size of a brick.
While many things have changed over time, some tools are well-rooted in history and may never fade from existence.
Faxing is one of those tools – and here’s why.
The Humble Beginnings of the Fax Machine
It may surprise you to learn this, but the fax machine was invented in simpler times, in 1843. This was well before the telephone was invented in 1876, when the idea of instant communication was still something of a fantasy. The telegram was invented only a few years before in the 1830s, by a man named Samuel Morse. He also invented – you guessed it – the Morse code.
According to an infographic timeline from eFax, the fax machine’s earliest rendition was created by a man called Alexander Bain. Like many innovators and inventors, Bain took an invention that already existed and looked for ways to improve it. According to Britannica, Bain received a patent to make “improvements in producing and regulating electric currents and improvements in timepieces and in electric printing and signal telegraphs.”
Bain’s invention was close, but it didn’t quite hit the mark. The contraption could “scan” and scribe information on metal, which didn’t really do wonders for the end goal. Then, everyone else did what Bain did and created spin-off inventions in an attempt to perfect the design. Bain determined it was better to defend his patent than try to improve on it, and as any startup founder will tell you, you have to adapt or face extinction.
So, Bain faded into history, and the first commercially viable fax machine was attributed to Renaissance man Giovanni Caselli, an artist, physicist, priest, and alleged fax machine inventor.
From there, Shelford Bidwell made it possible to send two-dimensional elements through the machine. Frederick Bakewell and Giovanni Caselli both contributed to adjusting the machine to send images. Telephones were invented, and then image transmission followed in 1880, then signature transmissions in 1888.
By then, the fax machine was a well-respected military tool.
Military Adoption and Expansion
It should come as no surprise that many modern business tools we use today have military origins. If you’ve been a part of a Zoom meeting in 2020, you can thank the military-led invention of the internet.
Emperor Napoleon III (the infamous Napoleon’s nephew) was the first to adopt the “pantelegraph” to communicate with his contacts in neighboring cities. Being the proverbial Instagram influencer of his era, Napoleon III contributed to the evolution of the first social network, transmitting messages all over France.
With it’s enhanced security features, militaries started using this tool to securely transmit data, including battle plans and maps. While the transmission took time, it was a lot more efficient than sending a rider to a neighboring city and hoping they didn’t get caught along the way.
Around this time, newspapers also started using the technology to share news stories more quickly. While it’s hard to imagine – in a world of red banners on news stories and instant updates to our mobile devices – having the news in a few days, rather than a few weeks was revolutionary.
The Rise of the Machines
There were a few iterations and developments of the fax machine over the early 1900s. As technology evolved, major communications companies took a stab at improving the transmission of facsimiles. Wireless and radio signal faxes were sent. 3D data was made possible. AT&T is credited with sending the first electronic photo transmission to the media for printing in a newspaper.
Still, like many technologies, these cumbersome and costly machines were only accessible to the select few. Keep in mind that the basic household microwave cost more than $2,000 when it first launched, and a VCR cost more than $1,000 – nearly $4,000 in today’s currency equivalent.
Then came Xerox.
In 1964, Xerox revolutionized the world of electronic facsimile transmission with the release of a more accessible, efficient machine. Yes, it was still massive and cumbersome, and yes, it was still expensive, but businesses were able to shell out for this cutting-edge technology.
With the Magnafax, you could send a document across the country via telephone in six minutes, printing an estimated eight pages per minute after transmission. Xerox dominated the market to such an extent that their name became genericized. Want more information about generification? Google – I mean, internet search it.
Enter the Internet
“You’ve Got Mail.”
Three words that revolutionized business communications, but seemingly marked the death for faxing. Or so everyone thought.
On the surface, the introduction of email in the workplace was the perfect solution. However, it left numerous gaps in data transmission, particularly for important documents. While digital signatures are now considered legal, no one had the chance to work through those nuances when email technology was first rising through the ranks. It’s similar to how we’ve struggled to keep up with cloud technology over the past few years.
In the early days, the attachment capabilities were limited. Furthermore, dial-up internet made data transmission a nightmare. If you lived through it, you can probably hear the sound of your modem connecting right now. Emailing important documents meant printing copies, filling out the pertinent information, scanning the pages, formatting them, attaching them, and hoping they didn’t bounce back.
Faxing cut out at least 75% of that process.
So, while email became more popular, faxing didn’t entirely die out. Instead, it left its corporeal body and evolved to live on the web instead.
Internet Faxing 101
The culmination of centuries of product development has led us here, to the age of internet faxing. The enhanced security and accessibility make internet faxing available from anywhere, whether you’re quarantined in your home office or checking for updates on your morning commute. It cuts out the need for numerous apps and steps for a streamlined process.
Companies such as eFax – an industry leader in online faxing – did what Blockbuster should have done when Netflix approached them in 2000. They adapted and avoided extinction, adding to the legacy of an enduring communications tool.
Instead of brushing off faxing as a business tool, think about what you can learn from its surprisingly interesting history.