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The Invention of The Fax Machine: Faxing, Security & War

The Invention of The Fax Machine: Faxing, Security & War
The Invention of The Fax Machine: Faxing, Security & War

If you work in an office where your fax machine works 8 — 6, it might be hard to imagine a world without faxing. 

Believe it or not, faxing was once a fresh, new invention. And in this article, we want to go back to that story. 

Specifically, we’ll cover how the fax machine was invented, how the fax machine played a role in several wars (and why) and how faxing’s rich history led us to the world of online faxing today. 

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When Was The Fax Machine Invented? 

The fax machine was the idea of Scottish clockmaker and inventor Alexander Bain. Bain filed a patent for the first fax machine in Ireland and Great Britain on May 27th, 1843. He later followed this up by filing patent 5957 with the US Patent Office on December 5th, 1848. 

Bain’s original “Electric Printing Telegraph” used clocks to send a message between two machines. One machine read the message line-by-line and transmitted it while the other received the message and printed it onto a piece of paper. 

Bain never brought his machine to market, but he did set the stage for later machines. One of these machines was a modified version produced by Frederick Bakewell. Another was the “Pantelegraph,” invented by Giovanni Caselli. 

Caselli was the first person to commercialise faxing, as he built a fax service between Lyon and Paris in 1865. To give you an idea of just how old faxing technology is, the telephone wasn’t invented for another eleven years (in 1876). 

These early fax machines could only transmit written messages, but that changed in 1880 with Shedford Bidwell’s “Scanning Phototelegraph.” This machine could fax basic illustrations across short distances. Another early fax machine was also able to transmit images — the “Bildtelegraph,” invented by Arthur Korn around 1900. The Bildtelegraph was reasonably widespread across Europe to the point that the French police used it to transmit a photograph of a wanted person from Paris to London in 1908. 

The Bildtelegraph had several competitor devices, including the “Bélinographe” from Édouard Belin and the Hellschreiber from Rudolf Hell (invented in 1929). Starting with the invention of the “Telautograph” by Elisha Gray in 1888, several early faxing devices started to be able to send signatures. 

Modern telecommunications giant AT&T started getting interested in faxes around the first world war. On May 19th, 1924, scientists from the company made a breakthrough in faxing technology when they successfully sent 15 photographs from Cleveland to New York using electricity. They would later use this system to send photographs for journalists. 

All of this faxing technology was used on a small scale, as inventors struggled to make faxing a commercial success. 

Though it wouldn’t be until the 1960s that retailers like Xerox sold modern commercial fax machines, the first office-style fax was the “Deskfax,” marketed by Western Union in 1948. Again, this machine wasn’t a household name or anything, but Western Union sold over 40,000 of them. 

Note: If you read about faxing’s history, you’ll see the terms “telecopy” and “telefax” used for “fax machine.” These are simply older names for fax machines. 

Were Fax Machines Ever Used in Wars?

By the start of World War 2, there were several large commercial services for sending photographs. 

AT&T owned one telephotography service, which the company paid over $3 million to set up (though revolutionary, this service was a commercial flop for the company). The Associated Press owned another — the Wirephoto Service (started in 1935). 

Journalists, photographers and news publications used these services to get photographs from the front lines to readers at home. But this wasn’t their only use. Multiple governments (including governments in the Allied forces) used telephotography services to send charts, maps, weather maps and reconnaissance photographs over long distances. 

It’s difficult to research the full extent of what faxing was used for during World War 2 as much of this information remains secret. However, we know that until the 1960s, militaries (especially the United States military) were faxing’s largest consumer. 

The Allies weren’t the only ones interested in faxing — nor necessarily the first. During World War 1, Germany’s military used faxing technology to send maps and photographs of targets from aeroplanes. As you might imagine, Germany used wireless faxing for this. 

Like in World War 1 and 2, faxing played a role in the Vietnam war. The US military used faxing to send photographs and documents long distances. One of the most famous photographs to ever come out of the war was also faxed (this would be the Pulitizer Prize-winning photo of a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack). 

Finally, faxing has helped many social and political movements transmit information securely. For example, people living outside China during the 1989 student protests used faxing to send news about the protests into China (where the government heavily censored it). 

Then, in 2017, a campaign called Artifax encouraged people to use fax machines to bombard American congressional offices with pleas for funding for national arts programs. 

Why Fax Machines Worked In War

So, why were fax machines used in multiple wars by numerous militaries? 

Security 

“Security” is the obvious answer here. Before fax machines, modern militaries transmitted information via radio, post and telephone (among other methods). These methods work well, but bad actors could also breach them. 

Someone could listen in on a radio broadcast by tuning in to the same radio frequency, for example. To get around this, many people transmitted messages in code. Code helped, but it wasn’t foolproof (especially if an insider who knew the code leaked it or opposing forces captured them). 

Similarly, bad actors could easily intercept messages by post and forge misleading responses. People could tap telephone lines, or opposing forces could disconnect them to sever communication. 

Faxing was far more secure by comparison. People could encrypt faxes with code and transmit them instantly, reducing the chances of interception. Wireless faxing also allowed militaries to communicate without lines, making faxing slightly safer (as well as giving people an excellent way to communicate visual information with people in aeroplanes during flight). 

Speed

Speed is another critical factor. People have tried to build fast message transmission systems for war for hundreds of years. Julius Caesar, Hannibal and Alexander the Great, for example, all used person-to-person systems to transmit messages quickly. 

In more modern times, people have used light signalling, radio and telephone. Like fax machines, these methods got messages from A to B in minutes. 

Accuracy 

Accuracy was an issue for many early forms of war communication. Breakdowns in telephone lines, connection loss with radio and message mistiming with light signalling all caused people to miss critical parts of messages. 

As fax machines transmit written and visual information, they could be more accurate. Think about what would be easier: viewing a map of enemy forces with your own eyes or trying to picture where enemy forces are as someone describes it to you via phone?

So, the advantages of faxing technology made it a tremendous asset during wars of the past. But what about modern conflicts? Where is faxing today? 

→ Send And Receive Faxes Online, Anytime, Anywhere. Start Your 30 Day eFax Trial Now

From Machine To Smartphone: Faxing In Modern Times

Faxing technology has evolved a lot since its invention in the 1800s. And, like many technologies, it’s gone digital. 

Today, over 11 million people worldwide send faxes online using eFax alone. eFax is an online fax provider that helps people send and receive faxes from their tablets, smartphones and computers. eFax can transmit faxes via email, mobile app, internet browser and desktop app. 

Online faxing uses the same concepts as traditional faxing, but it provides a better technology that’s more suited to modern times (and I guess, by extension, to modern warfare). 

Online faxing, for example, is far more cyber secure than traditional faxing. Online faxing providers encrypt messages before sending them, ensuring messages can’t be read even if they are intercepted. Online faxes also travel through protected servers, so intercepting them is more complicated and demanding. 

Online faxing is also more reliable, as there are no communication breakdowns from a broken machine, faulty fax line or paper jams. 

Of course, these aren’t the only benefits of online faxing. Online faxing is:

  • Scalable 
  • More environmentally friendly 
  • Cheaper
  • More efficient 
  • Better for international faxing 
  • More flexible

These benefits don’t just make online faxing a great military tool. They also make it a reliable technology small and big businesses can benefit from. For example, remote employees can use online faxing to fax from home, field employees can fax from their smartphones, and international businesses can send faxes across borders cheaply and reliably. 

Fax Machine Vs Online Faxing 

Factor Fax Machine Online Faxing
Transmission mode Fax machine → fax line → fax machine Device → internet → device 
Devices required Fax machine Any internet-connected smartphone, tablet or computer
Expected costs Machine, machine maintenance, paper, ink and line costs Faxing subscription
Security Anyone can take a fax from the machine if they have access. Faxes are protected with Transport Layer Security (TLS) encryption during transport and AES 256-bit encryption during storage.
Storage You must file faxes manually Stores faxes automatically in cloud-based storage
Features Multiple recipient faxing, international faxing, and other machine-specific features Address book, digital signatures, large file transfer, email faxing, mobile faxing, Tag and Search, usage review, multiple users, fax previews, fax templates, etc

Note: click here to learn more about online faxing features.

NBN compatibility  Not compatible  Fully compatible 
Flexibility Not flexible — you must be near the fax machine to send or receive a fax  Very flexible — you can fax from anywhere (provided you have your device handy!)
Type of files it processes Handwritten notes, printed images and documents Nearly 200 file types, including images, video files, audio files and documents

eFax: Faxing In Your Hands 

Faxing technology has changed a lot, and the service faxing users get improves every decade. 

Today, eFax customers can enjoy cyber-secure faxing at a fraction of the cost of traditional faxing. eFax plans are flexible, scalable and start from just $16.95 a month

eFax’s price isn’t its only benefit. eFax users can fax smarter with features like digital signatures, fax forwarding, an address book and storage tools that make it easy to find your faxes. eFax is a future-proof technology that’s compatible with the NBN, HITRUST CSF Certified and compliant with GLBA, PIPEDA, PCI-DSS, SOX and HIPAA. 

If you’d like to give eFax a shot in your business, call us at 1800 243 308 to speak to an eFax faxing expert.

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