History of the Fax Machine

Alexander Bain & Early Fax Developments

The telegraph's invention led to the creation of fax machines.
The telegraph's invention led to the creation of fax machines.
┬ęSean Durgan/Getty Images

Early cultures used drums and smoke signals to send messages. At the battle of Thermopylae, Greeks used mirrors to reflect the suns' rays and send signals. The Pony Express, while hardly instantaneous, was an early attempt to quickly send detailed information over great distances.

But the telegraph really revolutionized communications, bringing the lightning-quick characteristics of electricity into play.

Scientists made great advances in the study of electricity in the 18th century, opening the way for the telegraph. In 1833, Germans Carl Friedrich Gauss and Wilhelm Weber built a working telegraph line that stretched for nearly a mile through the city of Gottingen. It wasn't long before William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone put the first practical telegraph into use in 1837. It used five needles that pointed to alphabet letters on the receiving end. Being an operator, therefore, required no great skill; only that the receiver write down the letters as they arrived.

This new timeliness would lead Scotsman Alexander Bain to wonder about sending not just signals but also images over the wires.

Bain, a clockmaker, used his expertise to design and patent the basic concepts involved in the modern fax machine. His idea, which became known as the "chemical telegraph," used the electric signals generated by a telegraph operator. The signals would pass through a type of paper that was soaked in a chemical. The signal caused the chemical to evaporate, leaving a long or short mark of Morse code. The marks allowed for much faster transmission and led him to create punched-hole tapes that allowed automated transmissions and reception.

An innovative technician, Bain invented the fax machine when he patented the idea on May 27, 1843, decades before the telephone was patented and when the telegraph was only about 10 years old.

Go to the next page to learn more about the science behind Bain's invention.