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Saturday, October 01, 2011

The rise and fall of the fax machine

By Dick Hirsch

Things were different just a few years ago in what we now refer to as the old days. At the time we certainly didn’t realize that what we were experiencing would soon be a part of the "in the old days" category because the object of our interest and admiration was so new and exciting.

It was the fax machine.

I remember how it was when the fax telephone began to ring, signaling that a message was about to be transmitted. Many of the people within earshot would immediately stop whatever they were doing, jump up from their desks, and hurry over to the fax to see who was calling and what they were sending. For most of those spectators, it was none of their business. They had other work to do, but they would stand transfixed as the printed sheets emerged.

That was the beginning of the glory days for the fax machine, the days when it was regarded as a sensational new time and labor saving device. It lived up to that billing. Think of it: the ordinary office or residence had suddenly gained the ability to transmit and receive documents by phone. It meant that if the intended recipient was in Los Angeles, Anchorage, Munich or wherever, the message would not need to be mailed. It would be sent and arrive instantly.

The fax machine traces its ancestry back to 1843 when a Scottish inventor named Alexander Bain patented a gizmo designed to permit the transmission of images over a telegraph line. Although I was familiar with the work of James Watt, Cyrus McCormick, Alexander Graham Bell and other imaginative figures from history, I never heard of Bain until today. Of course it took over a century for the concept of facsimile transmission to evolve from idea to reality in the market place. The machines were introduced in the ‘80s.

I remember a business trip to New York during which I met with a man who was assessing my capabilities as well as those of my company. Among the unexpected questions he asked was this: “Do you have a fax machine?” I lied, but only a little. I told him we had ordered one and it was being installed next week. Later that day I called the office and told the boss we had better get a fax because I had a new client who was eager to do business with us, but insisted on us having a fax. The boss wasn’t that thrilled with the news because he characterized the fax as a gimmick, the popularity of which would be temporary. He grudgingly agreed to install one and it operated for years, proving itself to be an essential office tool.

But depending on your definition of “temporary,” maybe the boss was right in his assessment. Over the years, the fax has been chased into virtual extinction by e-mail, which is ideal for the transmission and delivery of letters and scanned images.

The fax now has a unique status. Despite the technological changes which have changed the office, the fax hangs on. It is not obsolete, although it totters on the precipice of obsolescence. It no longer occupies an essential role, but is regarded as an appliance that must remain operational for that dwindling number of situations when someone decides to send a fax.

In our office, the majority of faxes that are received fall into the category of junk. We regularly receive announcements of upcoming trips to Acapulco or Jamaica, offering hotel rates that are suspiciously low and include room, meals and all drinks all day and all night. We also are regularly notified of health insurance plans at bargain prices and offered deals to install vending machines that would delight our staff and add profit for our business. There are other similar communiques too numerous to mention. One regular correspondent is a roofing company that sends fax after fax warning of the consequences of leaky roofs and offering to give us a new one at a ridiculously low cost. No one pays any serious attention to any of those transmissions.

Yes, the status of the fax has declined; where once it was the favored mode for urgent ASAP material, now it is used to shill for travel agents and home improvement contractors, along with an occasional document of some importance. It had a short but eventful period in the office limelight. How fleeting was its time as a star performer...



At 7:32 AM, Blogger Brian and Nancy said...

You can now sen faxes computer to computer. You can also simply scan documents and send them as email attachments. I think there will come an end to the fax machine some day, as will the PC fall when the computers become attached to our televisions.

At 4:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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Fax Machine


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