Faxed: A Book Review – Part 1

In 1993, I visited the city of San Antonio to participate in a speaking engagement on fax at a conference on electronic commerce.  While there, I had dinner with a professor from the University of Texas A & M named Jonathan Coopersmith.  We had an engaging conversation about facsimile technology and he told me that he was writing a history on the subject.  The fax business was in full ferment at the time and I’d been busy during the past several years working on the TR-29 fax committee, which prepared US fax standards and also submitted contributions to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the group which defined standards for fax and other telecom technologies.

Fast forward about ten years.  Jonathan visited Needham, Massachusetts to interview the executives of Brooktrout Technology and discovered that I also worked at the company. He invited me to share lunch with him and we talked about how much fax had changed in the prior ten years, going from the world’s hottest communications technology to one of many ways of communicating in a world now dominated by Internet based tech.  He also said that yes, he was still working on the book, but had taken out time to raise his family and he’d been sidetracked on that long running project.  We continued to exchange messages over the next several years, notably when he visited Japan to interview sources over there in person.  He sent me a draft of a chapter on computer fax and fax during the Nineties around 2010 or so and I offered some feedback.

In 2015, Jonathan got in touch.  Great news.  The book was done and published.  The result is called Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine.  He sent me a copy and I recently sat down and read it over the period of a few weeks. Jonathan’s area of expertise is as an historian specializing in the history of technology.  He discovered fax as a user, finding the fax machine was a technology that even his mother could use effectively.  He’d also discovered that the books on fax were not written from an historical perspective, so he decided to write one.

IMG_1010 - Faxed - cropped

Fax has a fascinating history.  It was invented in 1843 by Alexander Bain, a Scottish physicist, during the era when the telegraph was the king of communications technology.  Bain was one of several notable figures in the early days of fax; as Coopersmith notes, the idea attracted a diverse group of inventors who worked not only on fax, but also on improvements to the telegraph.  I’d been aware of Bain, but Coopersmith digs in and finds many others who advanced fax in one way or another during its first seventy years.  The technology was promising, but difficult, involving aspects of mechanics, optics and electronic synchronization which tended to exceed the state of the art at the time.  The early markets for fax sprung up around World War I and its aftermath, as newspapers began to supplement written words with photographs transferred via fax and competitive technologies.

As Coopersmith recounts, fax moved forward in fits and starts and consumed a great deal of financial capital in the process, but did not actually result in a successful commercial market until the Sixties, when new technologies such as the photocopier from Xerox made it easier for faxed documents to be copied and exchanged within businesses and other organizations.  Even in this period, there was a lack of standards and the main markets were the US and Japan.  Xerox appeared to have all of the pieces to dominate the market, but invested elsewhere and other startups began to compete for the burgeoning market of fax machines targeted to offices.

Two developments changed the landscape in a dramatic way.  First, the Carterphone decision forced AT&T to allow 3rd party devices to connect to the phone network and opened the way to telecom technology to advance outside of the monopolistic Bell system.  Coopersmith notes that NTT was forced to open its network in Japan just a few years later, which also encouraged a number of companies in Japan to jump into fax.  The second development was the hard set of compromises that resulted in the first well accepted fax standard, Group 3, which was agreed within the International Consultative Committee on  Telegraphy and Telephony (aka CCITT) in 1980.  With the advent of Group 3, the factories in Japan were able to standardize mass production of fax machines and Japan became the supplier of fax machines for the world.

In the late Eighties, the sub-$1000 fax machine debuted and the fax explosion was in full motion.  Around this time, a court in New York State accepted that fax documents could be used in legal proceedings and fax gained a stature which pushed other technologies like Telex aside.

During this period, I worked for Fujitsu Imaging Systems of America (FISA) and was a product line manager for a new technology called computer fax modems.  FISA had bought one of the early fax success stories from the Sixties, Graphic Sciences, from Burroughs Corporation in 1986.  This is where my story begins to intertwine with the fax history which Coopersmith recounts.  I’ll continue this review in my next post.