Skip to content

The History and Workings of the Fax Machine

Chances are you haven‘t used an actual fax machine in years. Yet if I asked you to describe one, you‘d likely conjure up a clear image – that bulky, beige box sitting next to the photocopier in offices of the 1980s and 90s, noisily churning out documents page by page.

In an era when most written communications have gone online, you might think the fax machine is a piece of outdated tech destined for the junk heap. But millions of fax machines continue humming away around the world today. Despite disruptive digital innovations, fax technology persists in select roles where it offers unique benefits.

In this article, we‘ll take a nostalgic trip back through the fax machine‘s history. We‘ll relive its game-changing heyday in the world of business communication. We‘ll break down precisely how this iconic gadget works its analog magic. And we‘ll explore why faxing still hangs on today in the age of email, texting, and video calling.

Origins: Bringing Documents to Life Over Wires

The fax machine traces its roots back to the early 19th century and the pioneering work of Scottish inventor Alexander Bain. In 1843, Bain received a patent for a device that could take images etched onto metal plates and transmit them electrically over telegraph wires. While the transferred images were crude, Bain‘s fax concept demonstrated the revolutionary potential of scanning documents to convert them into signals for remote transmission.

A few decades later, an Italian physicist Giovanni Caselli created the "Pantelegraph" in 1861 – the first commercial fax system. Caselli’s invention used regulated pendulums to systematically scan a document line by line. The synchronized pendulums on the receiving end reconstituted the images back into readable form over telegraph wires. The Pantelegraph established the first fax service between Paris and Lyon in 1865, allowing bankers to transmit signatures for financial transactions.

While novel, both Bain and Caselli’s designs faced limitations in speed, accuracy and convenience that prevented widespread adoption. The breakthrough came in 1888, when American inventor Frederick Bakewell patented an improved fax machine incorporating several key innovations:

  • Synchronized rotating cylinders covered in conductive tin foil to scan documents and imprint received images.

  • A stylus mechanism that scanned documents line-by-line into electrical signals for transmission.

  • Reverse-engineering of signals back into images by the synchronized receiving cylinder.

Bakewell’s device demonstrated for the first time the complete end-to-end fax process – a method still used over a century later. Along with later inventors like Arthur Korn and Edouard Belin, Bakewell paved the way for refined fax technologies to finally emerge.

Xerox and the Rise of Digital Faxing

While the technical basis of faxing was now feasible, it remained impractical for mainstream business use in the early 20th century. Fax devices were expensive, bulky and difficult to operate. It took major corporate investment into simplifying the technology to unleash the fax revolution.

Xerox Corporation led the charge, releasing the Magnafax Telecopier in 1966 – the first digital fax machine made for commercial use. This groundbreaking model replaced the antiquated rotating cylinders and styluses with a faster, more reliable solid-state scanning system. It digitized images using a charge-coupled device (CCD) image sensor and digitally encoded the data to send over phone lines.

According to Bill Spencer, an engineer on Xerox‘s fax development team, "We knew digital was going to be the wave of the future, so we placed our bet on digital fax." That bet paid off, as digital transmission proved far superior in speed and accuracy.

Over the next decade, Xerox continued to refine fax technology in their laboratories. They introduced innovations including:

  • Built-in image scanners for convenience and compactness.

  • Thermal printing mechanisms, replacing messy ink with heat-sensitive paper.

  • Advanced data compression algorithms to speed up transmission.

By making faxing faster, cleaner and user-friendly, Xerox transformed the fax machine from a niche technology into an essential office appliance.

The Fax Explosion of the 1980s and 90s

With innovations pioneered by Xerox and competition heating up, compact and affordable fax machines from major brands like Canon, Panasonic and Brother became common sights in offices by the late 1980s.

Faxing transitioned from an expensive luxury used sparingly into a routine office workhorse. What factors drove the rapid adoption?

  • Plummeting prices: Mass manufacturing and economies of scale made fax machines cost effective for most businesses to adopt. Prices dropped from thousands to hundreds of dollars.

  • Simplified workflows: Improved interfaces, auto feeders and scanning made faxing dead simple for employees at all levels.

  • Network effects: As more offices adopted fax machines, compatibility accelerated adoption further.

  • Cross-distance communication: Fax enabled instant sharing of documents across cities and continents.

  • The last mile: Fax solved the “final mile” of document delivery otherwise reliant on mail and couriers.

Year Estimated Fax Machines in Use
1979 200,000
1989 2 million
1999 100+ million

By the late 1990s, over 100 million fax machines were estimated to be in use globally. The familiar electronic screech of a fax transmission became part of the office soundscape.

Understanding How Fax Machines Work

Early Internet pioneers liked Vint Cerf originally assumed “there would be no need to use fax once the Internet came along.” But fax has persevered thanks to its unique advantages. To understand why it remains relevant today, let’s break down what exactly happens behind the scenes when you send a fax.


To begin, the document you want to fax is loaded into the feed tray. Rollers gently pull the page over a small rectangular glass window called the platen. A bright light illuminates the document, while a phototransistor image sensor scans back and forth, digitizing one thin strip at a time. Once digitized, the document image gets converted into a bitmap file.


Next the fax modem converts the scanned document into electronic signals coded to transmit the black and white pixel information. The data gets compressed to save transmission time using encoding schemes like Modified Huffman (MH), Modified READ (MR) and Modified Modified READ (MMR).


Now the magic happens – your document gets beamed as a modulated analog audio signal through traditional telephone lines just like a voice call. The analog telephone network acts as a single giant switched circuit between your fax‘s modem and the recipient‘s modem.


Miles away, the receiving fax machine‘s modem picks up the call and demodulates the signal, decoding the binary data back into image pixels. The compressed scanned document file gets reconstructed perfectly.


Finally, the receiving fax feeds a blank page over a thermal print head that heats up tiny dots to burn the transferred document onto the page line-by-line. Once printed, the page gets cut and stacked, and your fax is ready!

This reliable process allows easy direct transmission of printed documents anywhere in the world through the public telephone network.

Why Faxing Still Matters Today

In a world gone digital, you may wonder why anyone still uses ancient fax technology. Doesn‘t email provide an instant virtual alternative?

While faxing peaked long ago, millions of offices worldwide still rely on fax machines for vital document transmission. But why? As it turns out, fax still brings some unique benefits:


Once you feed your document into an analog fax machine, delivery is virtually guaranteed, as landline networks offer dedicated, stable connections without disruptions. Email can fail from technical glitches, unstable internet, spam filters, or inbox overflows.


Fax communications travel directly over telephone lines point-to-point, making interception difficult. Emails rely on dozens of potentially unsecure servers along the route, risking hacking or data leaks. Fax provides a simple solution when privacy is paramount.


Using a fax machine to send printed documents requires no advanced technical skills – just put in a page and dial. Attaching scans to emails with encryption introduces complexity many avoid.

Legal compliance

Digital scans and signatures often don‘t meet legal document requirements. But signed fax documents retain legal validity in sectors like healthcare and law where regulatory burdens are high.

These advantages explain the endurance of faxing in fields where risks and regulations abound. Healthcare in particular remains a bastion for faxing, which transmits an estimated 75% of all medical communications in the US.

The Downsides of Faxing in the Modern World

Given its ongoing niche usage, you might think fax technology has stood the test of time. But some severe limitations have become more exposed in today‘s digital world:

Landline dependence

Fax machines only function through dedicated analog phone lines. As landline usage plummets worldwide, obtaining and maintaining fax lines becomes costlier and more difficult.

Consumable costs

Fax machines devour proprietary thermal paper and ink toner cartridges, raising operating costs. A typical ink cartridge runs dry after 200 pages. Emails are free beyond internet costs.

Hard to digitize and index

Incoming faxes can‘t be instantly searched or shared like digital files. They remain isolated as paper printouts requiring manual scanning to share beyond the original recipient.

Security gaps

While faxing itself is relatively secure, printed faxes can be intercepted from target recipients‘ physical mailboxes. Once on paper, faxes lose their security advantage.


Recipient employees may discard unnecessary faxed documents, generating needless paper waste. Faxes are unbounded documents that can‘t be neatly filed like emails.

While faxing brings benefits like reliability and security, its physical and analog limitations are increasingly out of step in the digital world.

The Evolution of Digital Faxing

To bridge the growing gap between analog fax machines and the digital world, Internet-based fax services emerged in the 1990s as popular alternatives.

Rather than dedicated phone lines and printers, these services enable faxing directly from computers using email or web interfaces. Users can attach documents they want to fax as image files or PDFs and simply specify the recipient‘s fax number.

The fax service handles conversion into standard fax formats like TIFF before transmission over telephone networks to fax machines or other digital fax services.

Top companies like eFax, MetroFax, and SRFax offer both hybrid analog and digital fax capabilities, along with internet-only fax mailboxes. This gives the best of both worlds during the gradual industry shift away from physical fax machines.

Digital internet fax brings key benefits:

  • No more hardware – Only a computer and internet connection are needed.
  • Convenience – Send and receive faxes as email attachments or via web interfaces.
  • Searchability – Incoming faxes are received in digital formats to enable indexing, archiving and search.
  • Cost – No paper, ink or maintenance required – just an inexpensive monthly subscription.

According to industry surveys, over 60% of major enterprises now use some form of cloud faxing service, and growth continues as traditional analog faxing declines.

Faxing without a Fax Machine

If you only need to fax the occasional document, buying a whole fax machine or service subscription may seem overkill. Luckily, a range of simpler options now exist to fax from your computer or smartphone as needed:

Email-to-fax services

Many providers like FaxZero allow sending faxes as email attachments that get routed to the recipient‘s fax number. Simply attach your document, enter the number in the subject line, and hit send.

Faxing apps

Apps like MetroFax, FaxBurner, and JotNot Fax let you fax directly from your smartphone camera or photo library. Just snap a pic of your document or select a PDF, enter the fax number, and tap send.

Online fax services

For quick one-off faxes, websites like FaxZero and HelloFax allow faxing directly from any web browser. There‘s no need to download software or even create an account. Just upload your document and send.

Occasional users no longer need the cost and hassle of physical fax infrastructure when convenient online and mobile options exist.

The Role of Faxing Looking Forward

Faxing peaked in popularity in the 1990s, but despite its antiquated reputation, millions of fax machines remain humming away around the world today in various niches.

In many regulated sectors with strict data privacy and security requirements like healthcare and legal, fax remains deeply entrenched. Recent surveys found that:

  • 80% of healthcare organizations still use fax as part of clinical workflows.

  • Over 90% of legal professionals report regularly faxing documents.

  • 75% of real estate agents and brokers utilize faxing for time-sensitive mortgage approvals and signatures.

However, broader digitization puts pressure on old-school fax, pushing adoption down over 10% in recent years by some estimates. Many companies now maintain hybrid analog and digital fax servers to ease this transition.

But for highly mobile or casual users, options abound to ditch the fax machine without losing fax capability. Between multifunction printers, email services, fax apps, and online tools, faxing can now move fully online for most small businesses and consumers.

While it still occupies vital niches, particularly in risk-averse sectors, faxing‘s days appear numbered as internet connectivity and computer security become ubiquitous. Electronic signatures, encryption, and blockchain-verified documents continue disrupting old-fashioned faxing.

But for now at least, the familiar electronic squeal of that last analog fax handshake remains a part of our workplaces. Fax‘s reliability and simplicity continues offering value for key applications, even as its technology inevitably slides further into history.