The fax machine is a thoroughly unusual technology to discuss. On the surface, it’s the most boring contraption imaginable — in an era of Snapchat glasses and augmented reality headsets, how could anyone possibly be interested in a machine that was seemingly defunct and irrelevant almost as soon as it became popular? However, looking beyond the common belief that faxing was something society was briefly obsessed with in the ’80s and early ’90s before it seemingly disappeared forever, there’s a unique and fascinating story of multiple revolutionary inventions that changed the course of electronic communications.
Though the fax machine might mistakenly be remembered as a product of the Generation X technology boom, the first seeds that led to its creation were planted as early as the 1800s, and its importance spanned years of human progress, conflict, and war. With that being said, let’s take a closer look at the strange history of the fax machine, and all the people throughout history who were involved in the creation of arguably the world’s most underrated technology.
Who invented the fax machine?
Scottish inventor Alexander Bain put forward the patent for the first fax machine, then known as the facsimile machine, in 1843 — the same year that the “Great Migration” on the Oregon Trail began. Yes, that’s right: electronic communications were taking place in the same year that your favorite educational PC video game was set in, complete with all that nasty dysentery and cholera.
The first machine was developed by Bain in 1846, with him using a clock to synchronize the movement of two pendulums, which would scan each line of a message in the process. This message was then sent to theAlexander-Bain receiver on electro-chemically sensitive paper, using a chemical solution he would also later use for his chemical telegraph invention. The message was then sent over a series of wires and reproduced on the receiver’s end.
Bain, an unexceptional student who spent his days toiling on a farm in the small village of Watten, Caithness, began his first steps towards becoming an inventor while hired as an apprentice to a clockmaker in Wick. After moving to London, Bain began experimenting with the science of electricity as a result of a lecture he attended at the Polytechnic Institution, leading him to employ some unorthodox methods in order to further understand how electricity could be employed in a practical manner.
Buying little more than a coil of wire, in 1840 Bain used cattle jawbones for hinges and heather for springs, creating makeshift batteries by inserting different metals into the Earth. These batteries would then power the springs and force the cow’s jawbones to move, a suitably terrifying creation that was much less useful than the inventions it would inspire.
Shortly following the creation of his weird cow machine, Bain had a monumental breakthrough after inventing the electric clock, a creation that was on the cusp of being stolen by Sir Charles Wheatstone. Wheatstone was a notable inventor, having been responsible for the development of many of the biggest breakthroughs of the Victorian era, including the Stereoscope which allowed for the viewing of 3D images (3D movies now use a technology known as stereoscopic 3D in reference to this early invention, so now you know who to blame for the increased theater prices). After Bain was told to approach Wheatstone in order to obtain financing for his electric clock idea, Wheatstone replied: “Oh, I shouldn’t bother to develop these things any further! There’s no future in them.” He later went on to attempt to patent an appropriation of this technology, but after a legal battle with Bain the patent was blocked.