From Synchronised Pendulums to Fax Online: A Short History of Fax

This week, for something completely different, we’re going to have a fun look at the history of fax – which dates back further than you’d expect! From its conception in 1843 to today’s online fax service, the story of the fax is both interesting and surprising…

1843: A Fax is Born

The first fax machine was invented in 1843 by Scottish inventor Alexander Bain. The machine used synchronised pendulums which allowed the sender and the recipient to use electric probes to copy messages line by line. Specially-treated paper was used to reproduce the message. Not surprisingly, the effectiveness and accuracy of this machine were hit-and-miss, especially over long distances.

This design was improved upon by Englishman Frederick Bakewell in 1851, and the pendulums were replaced with rotating cylinders, but synchronisation was still an issue with this machine.

But during the 1860s, Grand Duke of Tuscany Leopold II, Napoleon III and Giovanni Caselli collaborated to improve Bain’s original model. An internal clock was added to regulate and sync the sending and receiving devices. Called a pantelegraph, it was initially used in transmitting messages between Paris, Lyon, and Marseille for banking transaction signature verification.

1895: Evolution of the Fax

The next step in fax evolution was the telediagraph. Invented by Minnesota watchmaker Ernest Hummel between 1895-1899, the machine was used to send images over telegraph lines and the first commercial model was installed in the office of the New York Herald newspaper in 1908.

In 1906, Arthur Korn, a German physicist, improved upon Caselli’s pantelegraph and invented the phototelautograph. It used light-sensitive selenium cells to reproduce images. It was incredibly useful very quickly, and in 1908 led to the capture of a known criminal when German officials sent his likeness and fingerprints to London police via the device. The phototelautograph sent the first image fax across the Atlantic Ocean.

The next development in fax was the invention of the Belinograph by Edouard Belin in 1914 – it converted light to electrical transmissions using photoelectric cells. This tool was the first to be able to encrypt messages and it was the first to be used to send photographs.

Short history of fax part 1 infographic

Download a PDF version of infographic here: History Of Fax Part 1.

Check out A Short History of Fax Part 2 – where the fax heats up.

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