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Surprisingly, the origin of the process today called faxing—sending a document and receiving a facsimile of it via telephone lines or radio waves—is 160 years old.  At that time the technology used was the telegraph, but the underlying principle was the same.  In 1843, Alexander Bain, a Scottish mechanic and amateur clockmaker, was awarded a British patent for a Recording Telegraph.  It consisted of a pendulum-mounted stylus to sense dark patches on a metal sheet, transmit that data electronically, and another pendulum-mounted stylus to reproduce the patches on chemically treated paper when the electric impulses were received.

The first fax machine to send written or drawn images was invented by Frederick Bakewell, an English physicist, and demonstrated at the 1851 World’s Fair in London.  He replaced Bain’s pendulums with rotating cylinders, but problems with synchronization resulted in poor-quality images.  In 1861, Giovanni Caselli, an Italian physicist, patented the first commercially successful fax machine, the Pantelegraph.  His innovation was to separate the synchronized timers from the telegraphic current, which made the timers far more accurate.  Caselli operated a fax service between Paris and other French cities from 1865 until it closed with the onset of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.  Afterwards, the invention fell into disuse.

In its August 18, 1888 issue, Harper’s Weekly reported that Elisha Gray, who in 1876 narrowly lost the telephone patent race to Alexander Graham Bell, had invented a machine called the Telautograph, which would transmit “messages long distance in fac-simile handwriting of the sender.”  It was the first apparatus to reproduce transmitted data on stationary paper (instead of paper on rotating cylinders).  In 1888, Gray sold his patent rights to a group that incorporated as the Gray Telautograph Company.  The Telautograph drew large crowds when it was demonstrated at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.  The next year, George Tiffany produced a faster model Telautograph called the Eureka.  That improved fax machine gained fame in 1895 when the Chicago News-Record received handwriting samples from delegates to the Ohio State Republican Convention in Cleveland, 431 miles away.  A feature story in the July 1, 1905 issue of Harper’s Weekly on “Electricity at Home and in Business” included a description and photograph of the Telautograph.  (See the introduction and conclusion of the article.)

In 1895, Ernest Hummel of Minnesota had invented the Telediagraph, which transmitted pictures over telegraph lines.  By 1899, the machine was used in the offices of the New York Herald, Chicago Times-Herald, St. Louis Republic, Boston Herald, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.  It took 20-30 minutes to scan and receive a picture.

In 1902, the first photoelectric fax machine was invented by Dr. Arthur Korn, a German, and by 1910, its system linked Berlin, Paris, and London via telephone lines.  In 1922, Dr. Korn became the first person to transmit an image via radio waves.  The picture, a photograph of Pope Pius XI sent from Rome to the state of Maine, was published the same day in the New York World.  In 1941, the fax machine was used to send orders, maps, and weather charts during World War II.  In 1985, GammaLink manufactured the first computer fax board, and two years later Canon marketed the first plain-paper fax machine.  In 1995, color faxes were introduced.

Harper's Weekly References
1) August 18, 1888, p. 607, col. 3
news item, Elisha Gray invents the telautograph

2) July 1, 1905, pp. 944-945
illustrated article, telautograph and telegraphone

3) July 1, 1905, p. 957, col. 1
continuation of illustrated article,
telautograph and telegraphone

Sources Consulted

Bellis, Mary.  “The History of the Fax Machine.”

Coe, Lewis.  The Telegraph:  A History (McFarland and Co., 1993).  Excerpted on The Dead Media Project.

“Fax History.”  HF-Fax Image Communication Inc.

Katz, Eugenii.  “Famous Scientists.” Biosensors and Bioelectronics.  Hebrew University Jerusalem.

McChristy, Neal.  “Telautograph Forerunner to Modern Fax.”  Yesterday’s Office.

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