FROM New York to Toronto in less than a minute. That is the speed of fax. What is it? Simply described, it is remote photocopying—communicating without speaking a word. In the United States alone, more than a hundred thousand facsimile machines are purchased each month.
Doctors send medical reports, lawyers transfer legal transcripts, grocers fill food orders, and radio stations receive song requests from listeners—all by fax. Within an hour after the birth of her infant, a California mother even faxed the footprint of the baby to the grandparents living in another state.
How Does It Work?
It is very simple. All you need is a telephone, a wall plug, and a fax machine. A document is fed into the machine, where a scanning device reads all the dark shades on the page, translates them into electrical impulses, and transmits them through a telephone line. A receiving fax retranslates the impulses into dark shades and prints an exact copy.
Where Did This Technology Originate?
Back in 1843 a Scottish clockmaker and inventor named Alexander Bain developed and patented the first fax. It was a crude scanning device by today’s standards. An electrically wired stylus attached to the tip of a swinging pendulum swept back and forth over a block of metal type, sending electric pulses over telegraph wires. Another wired pendulum translated each pulse into a dark spot on electrosensitive paper.
By 1907 faxes were developed that used a spinning drum and a photoelectric cell that could read ordinary print right from a piece of paper wrapped around the drum. However, transmission by radio signals was slow and often subject to interference.
Technology of the 1980’s, using fiber optics, digital transmission, and signal compression, made possible faxes that could read and transmit as fast as three seconds per page under special conditions. Currently, the most widely used group of machines has a practical transmission speed on the order of 45 seconds per page.
How Is Fax Used?
Time-sensitive information that has customarily been delivered by overnight courier or the postal service can now be delivered in a matter of minutes. Important documents can be faxed and be in the hands of a second party in practically the same time it takes to address an envelope, stamp it, and mail it.
In Canada a child was recently diagnosed as having a serious, life-threatening medical complication requiring blood therapy. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, the parents were firm in their religious convictions that under no circumstances was blood to be used. Medical researchers were contacted, and within minutes articles were faxed to the doctor in charge to assist the medical team in evaluating alternative nonblood management techniques. The parents’ wishes were respected, and the baby was successfully treated. The family was impressed that hospital medical teams now use the fax as a vehicle for sharing medical protocol.
Even the news media have effectively utilized fax. In 1989, when the Chinese army suppressed a student revolt in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, the government restricted television, radio, and print coverage. Telephone lines were left open to maintain international trade, so reporters faxed the news and pictures to people within China and to the rest of the world.
The advertising industry has also capitalized on this technology. One marketing manager stated that when fax ads are sent, “the messages have a sense of immediacy and urgency. They get read right away.” But as far as many fax owners are concerned, this junk fax only ties up their equipment, interfering with their receiving information vital to their business.
As indicated above, fax use is limited only by your imagination. However, as with most new technology, someone is there to abuse it.
What Does the Future Hold for Fax?
One computer engineer foresees that faxes will get faster and smarter. As desktop machines become commonplace in businesses, internal faxing will replace internal mail delivery. Full-color facsimiles, as well as portable fax machines, are undergoing product development. A combination copier/printer/fax machine directed by a personal computer is also a future prospect. One major manufacturer even predicts that $100 personal fax machines the size of a memo pad will become available.
While the telephone still provides instant verbal communication, such messages are at times misquoted or misinterpreted. Fax can deliver the actual message in print—and fast. It is now an important communication device in our lives. Fax has come of age and is here to stay.