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27 april 2018

Fax machines, as I remember them, were sort of a pain in the ass. They were noisy and less-than-legible. They delivered mostly ads for takeaway restaurants and flybynight real-estate agents. When you tried to send something to Japan or Jordan or wherever, the machine would ingest your original, return it unchanged, and be impassively silent on whether the procedure had met with the least bit of success. After a while, nobody used the goddam things anymore, though they continued to take up a credenza in the office for another decade or so, because there was THAT ONE OFFICE on the far side of your workplace that insisted on getting every communication in the form of a fax.

Hence I'm not sure why I was so keen to read Jonathan Coopersmith's history Faxed. Though I must not have been that keen, because I put the book on my wishlist when it appeared in 2015 and only got around to ordering it via InterLibrary Loan three years later. But I'm glad I did. Faxed offers a quirky, crucial look at the interplay among technology, marketing, regulation, institutions, and users – via a briefly iconic bit of office equipment.

Less than half of Coopersmith's book is about the credenzatop machine we loved to hate. His starting point is the 1840s. Almost as soon as the electric telegraph existed, fax machines were a possibility, and they quickly became reality. Coopersmith reproduces some Victorian faxes. The effect is eerie – akin to seeing chromatographs from the first-world-war era: the past suddenly brought into view by what seems anachronistic technology.

Coopersmith continually distinguishes between technological push and user pull in the history of faxing. By 1860, the best of the early faxers, an inventor named Caselli, could send pretty good images over telegraph lines – somewhat slower than verbal messages, because of the greater amount of data involved, but without the vagaries of human interpretation by operators. But despite this push from the tech side, a hindrance to acceptance of faxing was the dubious utility of the images conveyed, especially in terms of return on investment in infrastructure. Caselli, for instance, sent a portrait of the Empress Eugénie from Paris to Amiens, far faster than any rider could carry it (20). But it was still a fax, speckled with those little splotches and lines familiar to 1990s users. Meanwhile, the Emperor's relay riders could take a much better picture of the Empress the 140 kilometers to Amiens – or anywhere else in France – considerably slower, but without any specialized network of wires and machines. The market pull for grainy pictures of things you didn't especially need to see (Napoleon III already knew what his wife looked like) was somewhat feeble.

From first to latest, one of the strongest arguments for faxing has been the need for authentication of messages. Literate societies have a bit of a fetish with signatures, as a guy named Derrida once observed. Despite their notorious susceptibility to forgery, signatures act as a magical guarantee that keeps money, drugs, and legal force flowing. Adding signatures to telegrams wasn't enough of an advantage to foster 19th-century fax networks. But in the 1950s, the Alden company introduced small, specialized fax machines that enabled banks to verify signatures (96). It would be a few decades till general-purpose fax became the preferred medium for prescriptions and other authorizations (physicians still send a surprising number of faxes even in the late 2010s). But the 1950s Alden initiative exemplifies how fax was able to win certain niches away from other forms of communication, long before its ubiquitous heyday.

Other attempts to carve out niches for fax systems failed as only steampunky schemes can. In the 1920s and '30s, entrepreneurs saw potential in wireless faxpapers. M.H. Aylesworth of NBC speculated that

the day will come when one will turn on the facsimile receiver when retiring, and in the morning the paper tape will tell the story of what flashed through the sky while you slumbered. It will contain road maps, fashion designs, comic sketches for children, and no end of things. (58)
It certainly has, though we now call it a "phone," and it's always on, and you don't check it just in the morning, but every time you get up to pee in the middle of the night. But in the interwar years, despite the feasibility of faxpapers, their expense was prohibitive. A Fulton faxpaper receiver, designed to print out BBC fax broadcasts, cost £22 in 1929: close to $2,000 in 2018 terms. Plus you had to keep the thing supplied with special paper, and in good repair; and doubtless the BBC would also charge you a special licence fee. Meanwhile an actual newspaper cost a penny (about 35 cents, today) and was a lot better than the faxpaper. In the end, Fulton couldn't sell enough machines for the BBC to run broadcasts, and the BBC wouldn't run broadcasts till Fulton could sell enough machines. This sounds absurd, but it's a repeated scenario in the history of business and technology.

One thing the faxpaper promised was fast long-distance transmission of images. Much of the early part of Coopersmith's Faxed is about the history of wirephotos, the first commercially important niche for fax technology. For all their profound impact on the way we know the world, wirephotos are not much studied, and their history remains largely obscure. Wikipedia dates wirephoto technology from 1921, but it existed much earlier; it's just that big companies didn't get into the wirephoto business till the 1920s. Even then, they and their customers (the major newspapers and wire services) tended to lose money on wirephotos, but kept investing in them as prestige features. After World War Two, of course, the wirephoto would become a mainstay of the morning newspaper, bringing Selma and Khe Sanh into your breakfast nook.

Before wirephotos became widespread, photographs in newspapers required proximity. If an el train derailed in Manhattan in the year 1900, you could get a photo of the accident into the papers the next day. The process required rushing the image to the press and creating a halftone version for printing, and that could be done at crosstown distances in time for deadline. But a disaster like the Galveston hurricane had to be illustrated with stock photos or artists' conceptions. Not just because Galveston was a disaster area, either, but because photographic plates would have to be conveyed physically from the scene to the faraway press. By the time they arrived, the news cycle had moved on to something more current.

Yet wirephotos were technologically feasible at the turn of the 20th century; they just didn't have a corporate infrastructure or a robust market. Page One of the New York Tribune for 29 April 1901 featured a photograph of President William McKinley, transmitted over telegraph wires from Washington to New York. The process would not become commercially viable for another thirty years or more, but the know-how was there.

Fax transmissions c1900, and even into the 21st century, were all or partly analog. We are so used to .pdfs and digital photography in the 2010s that it seems weird to think of so much analog transmission of images until so recently. That 1901 photo of McKinley sped along the telegraph wire not as a set of pixels, but as a line-by-line scan rendered as a variable electric pulse. Even the standard fax machine of the 1990s scanned a digital image of a document and then converted that data into analog form (to be redigitized at the other end). Perhaps the distinction between analog and digital is not crucial in this context. But the peculiar blurriness of the fax image, from McKinley in 1901 to that pizza order form in 2001, comes from that intervening analog step.

"The rise and fall of the fax machine" bore an irregular correlation to the regulation and deregulation of communications in the capitalist world. The breakup of the Bell/AT&T phone monopoly in the U.S. spurred fax innovation by allowing hardware and service competition. Semi-privatizing the U.S. Post Office in the early 1970s was another major factor: letters kept getting more expensive just as fax got cheaper. But sometimes private competitors torpedoed public visionaries. The episode of Speed Mail in the late 1950s (98-100) is a case in point. The Post Office proposed a service whereby you could write a letter which would then be faxed cross-country and delivered much faster than even airmail. Western Union didn't like the idea and vigorously undermined it.

Cooperation, not competition, was the most important factor of all. Without the G3 (digital-analog-digital) fax standard devised internationally in the late 1970s, the fax revolution of the '80s and '90s would have remained just a pipe dream. Standards, though not imposed by governments, are nurtured by them – in the case of G3, the Japanese government played a crucial role in coordinating committees that made the standard reality (148).

Ultimately, the Internet, a largely government-sponsored innovation that made Speed Mail look archaic, would erode the power of the fax machine and make it look like a dinosaur in turn. As an academic at a public university, I was less attuned to the ascendancy of fax than many other professionals. Faxing became cheap in the mid-1990s, but it never became free; and just as fax was starting to dominate office correspondence and even become a fixture in many homes, I began to use free e-mail through my university as my alternative to snail mail. Professors didn't miss the fax era entirely, but it was attenuated and elided for us, a middle step we didn't much notice – unless to complain, as I began this review, about how much of an annoyance the fax machine could be.

Coopersmith, Jonathan. Faxed: The rise and fall of the fax machine. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. TK 6710 .C65