Read: I tried to send a telegram in 2016
When the New York Daily News covered this incident in April, readers were incredulous: The Department of Corrections could have its operations stymied by a broken fax machine? Who even uses fax machines anymore, let alone depends on them?
A lot of people. Fax, once at the forefront of communications technologies but now in deep decline, has persisted in many industries. Law-enforcement agencies remain heavily reliant on fax for routine operations, such as bail postings and return of public-records requests. Health care, too, runs largely on fax. Despite attempts to replace it, a mix of regulatory confusion, digital-security concerns, and stubbornness has kept fax machines droning around the world.
An early facsimile message was sent over telegraph lines in London in 1847, based on a design by the Scottish inventor Alexander Bain. There is some dispute over whether it was the first fax: Competing inventors, including Bain in the United Kingdom and Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell across the Atlantic, sought to father facsimile technology, which was a kind of white whale for inventors. Telegraphs already allowed messages to be passed across distances, one letter at a time using Morse code. But the dream of transmitting copies of messages and images instantly over wires was very much alive. Writing in 1863, Jules Verne imagined that the Paris of the 1960s would be replete with fax machines, or as he called them, “picture-telegraphs.”
The technology did eventually lead to a revolution in communication, though it didn’t happen until years later. It first became known to many Americans after the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where a fax machine transmitted newspaper images from around the world at a rate of 18 minutes per page—lightning speed for the time.
“In an age of instantaneous information and images, it is hard to appreciate the magic that millions in the 1930s experienced upon seeing photographs of distant disasters appear the next day in their newspapers, or the excitement in the 1980s of watching an exact copy of a letter emerge line by line from a machine connected to the telephone network,” Jonathan Coopersmith writes in his book Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine.
Faxing really took off in the ’80s, in offices around the world. It caused major changes in the speed of business transactions, allowing individuals and companies to disseminate materials quickly and broadly—someone in an office building in Japan could fire off a document to the United States instantly. It also served as a precursor to today’s digital-image culture: Fax allowed for the speedy dissemination of pictures of all kinds. This gave rise to so-called creative faxers who, Coopersmith writes, faxed “pizza orders, song requests, party invitations, greeting cards, ski reports, amniocentesis results, baby footprints, children’s drawings, and vows of eternal love.” People faxed Santa Claus. They faxed God, via the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.