The History of Electronic Facsimile

Before Printing

Humans have been writing for about 10,000 years now. At first, it was mainly to record belongings or other similar accounting of things owned and owed.

That’s around 8,000 BC that humans started writing. However, all the writing was done by hand. There was no way to replicate the same writing for sharing large amount of the same book so everyone could have their own copy.

This changed when we started having stamps. The first stamps were used with mud. Later we used stamps with wax, which was much less complicated and the wax would not break as easily as dried mud.

The next advance was the invention of paper and ink. This dearly increased the speed at which we could write documents.

The Birth of Printing

Not that long ago, the concept of printing was attached to just Gutenberg, who invented the printing press in 1439. Gutenberg was a German fellow. He worked with Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer to invent his own press.

This printing press invention made it possible for Europe to go from manuscripts to printed documents. Making it extremely fast to reproduce knowledge and distribute it in large numbers to the masses. (Note that at the time, not so many people could read or write, in most country, literacy was around 5% to 10%).

However, printing actually existed in China before then.

A horse wood printing plate from Mongolian Buddhists.

It looks like there may have been a person called Gong the Sage (Gong Xuanxuan) who would have created the first printing plate around 480. A printing plate would be an equivalent to a large stamp that you can use to replicate a text that you carved on a piece of wood.

However, the better documented first appearance are texts from Buddhists. We’ve found such a wood board in a tomb that was dated to circa 650-670 AC. Such boards have now been found in Korea and Japan.

In AD 770, Empress Shōtoku ordered the printing of one million copies of a dhāraṇī sutra. Definitely a proof that printing existed then.

So the wood plates where mainly used to do work for religious documents. This is certainly the greatest difference with the European first presses. These were used by people of all venues (albeit richer ones since money was required to pay for the production). However, with time, many other types of books were being printed and the price of books actually dropped to 1/10th of what it was a few centuries earlier.

First Improvements

With most inventions, come improvements.

The wood plates were an ingenious invention. They had two problems, though. They were made of a soft material and the entire plate was made of one large piece. As you can imagine, you were not allowed to do any errors while sculpting the boards and once a piece breaks, you have to sculpt a brand new complete board.

One of the first improvement was to switch to creating separate characters so they could easily be reused and fixed, one at a time. This is very much what Gutenberg did. The following improvement was to use metal instead of wood.

Note that even though such progress was made but woodblock printing went along along those improvement. There was certainly a little bit of art and a religious aspect to keep using a process that was some 300 years old.


Interestingly enough, some people viewed the fact that you had to fix characters over and over again, as a drawback and made the printing slow and as laborious as writing manuscripts.

Of course, that was not the case, but it took a while for the presses to become better mechanized and have better quality characters.

The fact is that printing was evolving in complexity. The market become more and more complicated. There were newspapers, books, novels, dictionaries. Each type of job required a different type of press.

This led us to the rotary printing press in 1843, invented by Richard March Hoe. The incredible advantage of a rotary printing press was the speed at which you could print page after page.

Electric Printing

Not too long after that, in 1846, Alexander Bain created an apparatus that was able to create a printed document using electricity. This was quite a feat at the time. The apparatus could draw various graphic signs on a piece of paper.

Since using electricity would allow the apparatus to work at a distance, the Fax Machine was created. Bain called it the Electric Printing Telegraph.

Several people improved on that first design and in 1865 the very first commercial telefax machine was used to send facsimiles between Paris and Lyon (note that the voice telephone only appeared in the US in 1876).

Legal Signatures by Fax

You probably know that faxes have been used by many because it was legally binding. Insurances are still using them for that very reason.

This improvement was made by a woman: Elisha Gray, in 1888. She called her invention the telautograph or long distance signature.

Note that in 2016, the NHS (UK) was asked to drop fax technology in 2020, will it really happen?

“During the WannaCry attack of 2017 our out-dated, redundant piece of equipment ensured that blood products, not routinely held in our on-site blood bank, could be ordered without delay and therefore not compromising patient safety.”

Tim Owen

At this point, it looks like fax machines are not going anywhere. Also no other country seems to have followed the UK lead.


It is by 1924 that the first images were sent by fax. The quality of those images were good enough for printing them in the newspaper. This allowed photographs taken anywhere in the world to appear in newspaper within a day.

Wireless Transmission

It is on the same year, 1924, that the first fax was sent wirelessly. Yes! WiFi is nothing new! Well… At the time we used different radio frequencies, but it worked just the same.

And we weren’t kidding at the time, the transmission was between New York and London. We sent a picture of Calvin Coolidge and it was a success.

First Modern Fax Machine

It’s in 1964 that Xerox made a system commercially available to send facsimile over phone lines. That machine was called Long Distance Xerography. But it’s with the Magnafax Telecopier, offered in 1966, that the fax machine became easy to use and many businesses bought into it.

Now finally all businesses could send signed documents to any other business over long distances.

Digital Fax

In the late 1960s we started to see Digital Fax technology through the Dacom Rapidfax system.

The idea was to digitize the input with a scanner and then transmit the data over the analog phone lines compressed and with error corrections. This allowed much faster transmissions, hence the name of the device.

Fax PCI Boards

The next advance was the creation of a board that could be added to your PC computer and allowed you to send and receive faxes directly inside your computer without the printing device. I guess this was the beginning of the end, though.

Frank Magnusky was the engineer behind that invention.

Not too long after (1990), the fax capability was integrated in all modems which all were renamed fax/modem. For about two years, I had a computer which I used to send faxes to a couple of businesses automatically from my servers. Unfortunately, the compatibility between the OS and the fax board fell apart so I instead switched to using SaaS which is definitely a lot easier.

Internet Fax

Since the fax data has been digitized for a while and the Internet has become really cheap, fast, and wide spread, some companies started offering services where people can send faxes to each other using the Internet.

An interesting aspect to this is that often the data still travels over copper phone lines. However, smart companies can detect when a fax is being sent between two of their clients and although they still charge them for the transmission, they actually never have to use a phone line!

This website will talk further about all the modern solutions available to you to fax either through your phone line or via the Internet. If you have any question, don’t hesitate to post a comment.

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