The Fax: Wearing Out Its Welcome

The fax came back, we thought he was a goner,

But the fax came back, he just couldn’t stay away.

Like the proverbial cat with nine lives, this ancient technology called
the fax just seems to stick around long after it’s welcome.

Alexander Bain is credited with the invention of the fax, having
received a British patent for it in 1843. He built his machine out of
old clock parts and metal etching materials. It used a pendulum-mounted
stylus to scan a perforated surface.

The information was then transmitted used Samuel Morse’s telegraph
technology to a second device that recorded it on paper. Accordingly,
Bain called it the “Recording Telegraph”.

Despite its name, however, Bain’s invention was clearly the ancestor of
the fax and, while its technology sounds pretty rudimentary, the
principles of the modern fax machine are there.

It’s been improved on over the years, but only just barely. AT&T made the transmission of photos possible for newspapers in 1924. But it wasn’t until the 50s, when the first transcontinental call was placed, that faxes could travel any great distance.

Nowadays, instead of pendulums and styli, we have ink or laser-jet printing heads. And instead of telegraph, the plain old telephone service is used.

The fax has managed to secure a place in modern telecommunications, despite its archaic technology base. Mr. Bain would probably be quite proud of his contribution, were he still around to see it.

The irony, however, is that Bain’s name is the phonetic expression of annoyance. Every time I’m forced to engage with fax technology it never fails to ruin my day, so fault-prone and cumbersome is it.

Like just last week, I blew an hour trying to fax a one page letter. I should have just folded it up, put it in an envelope and walked the half kilometre to the mailbox down the road (which is what I ended up doing, anyway). I would have saved myself the grief and got some exercise.

The fax in question was required by my bank so they could verify my identity using a printed signature. This is just a lot of silliness. The word “fax” is just short for “facsimile”. I’m not sending them my signature, I’m sending them a copy of it. As if that represents anything.

It all leads me to wonder: in the internet age, what the heck is this descendant of visual morse code doing hanging around? There’s nothing it can do that a PC with email or web can’t, and better.

In fact, a simple email would actually carry more weight than a fax, from an identity verification perspective, because access to email requires I log into my personal account.

Or consider that I log onto my business bank account on the web almost daily. By granting me this online access, the bank has already gone to the trouble of establishing a secure, trusted location at which I am establishing my identity. Any communication I send from that point is far more verifiable than a black and white, low-resolution print-out that’s been transmitted from who-knows-where.

Still, they make me send a fax.

I do get it though. Fax is like that old sweater you take with you to the ball game, even though you know it’ll never get cold enough to put on. It’s the last bastion of analogue in the business environment and many people just aren’t comfortable without it around.

No offence to my elderly readers, but I find it’s usually the older folks who actually enjoy the sound of a fax machine spitting out a piece of paper and the smell of ink drying on its surface. Some of you even gleefully anticipate the arrival of faxes.

My generation tends to view that dusty old contraption in the corner in the same light as a cassette player: something our forebears once cherished with perverse reverence. We permit it to stick around out of respect, but at the earliest opportunity we’ll hand it over to some junk collector or experimental artist.

The ultimate death of the fax will happen naturally through attrition. In this respect, time is our friend, and can’t pass quickly enough.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, October 21, 2005

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