The Age of the Fax Machine Is (Finally) Coming to an End

The facsimile machine, used to transmit documents over telephone lines, has seen little improvement since it debuted in the mid-1970s


It's a rainy day in San Francisco and Ben Fong-Torres, one of the early Rolling Stone employees, is standing inside of the "copy-strewn office of the young editor/publisher JANN WENNER," according to the original screenplay. Fong-Torres is on the phone with William Miller, the protagonist from Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, explaining that Miller's still-unwritten piece on the band Stillwater has been selected for the cover. "Allison, our fact checker, needs you to transmit whatever you have of the story, tonight, now, along with your notes," Fong-Torres says. "There is a mojo at the Daily News they'll let us use...." Miller has no idea what a mojo is. Fong-Torres explains: "It's a very modern machine that transmits pages over the telephone. It only takes eighteen minutes a page...." (Emphasis is original.)

The joke is on us: More than 30 years after its debut, we're still using the fax machine.

It's a joke that always elicits a chuckle -- and I make a point of watching Almost Famous once a year or so. In the age of email and text messaging and Twitter, taking 18 minutes to transmit anything is absurd. Even my AOL dial-up didn't take that long to connect back in 1996. But the joke is really on us, because, while it doesn't take more than a quarter of an hour, we're still using the fax machine.

It is not, nor has it ever been, a mojo -- that's just the name legendary counterculture journalist Hunter S. Thompson gave the machine when he used it to send in his long, drug-addled Rolling Stone pieces. That term has always meant something magical and, at least since Mike Myers created his Austin Powers character, something a little cooler, something a little more shagadelic, baby, than a fax machine.

The facsimile machine is a tired, clunky object used to send documents over a telephone line. The fax, at least as we know it, came into being in the mid-1970s (Almost Famous is set in 1973), when optical scanning, modulator and acoustic coupler technologies all came together. The process is fairly basic, and shouldn't have lasted into the Internet Age almost unchanged. Somehow, though, the fax machine has managed to survive. Like Horseshoe crabs or those giant flies in the jungles of South America, these things are positively Prehistoric -- and have proven nearly unkillable.

Today, you can find a fax machine in any dusty old office that still needs to transmit signed copies of paperwork -- or in your nearest office supplies store. The chains have made an easy business out of charging too much to fax a couple of pages here or there; they know that the majority of their customers -- even those who might purchase Post-It notes and staplers to take back to their dusty old offices -- are without access to a fax machine but, every once in a great while, find that one would come in handy.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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