Oh boy, talk about something no one misses. Fax machines were a staple (no pun intended) of the office world twenty years ago. Today they’re nowhere to be seen… if you do see one in an office it probably hasn’t been used for years. It’s a sad end to a really long-lasting technology.

The history of fax

Faxing was actually invented before voice calling, in a matter of speaking. The origins of the fax date back to 1843 (phones came around in 1876) as a method of sending very crude images via telegraph. The technology improved and just 80 years later the first photo was sent over a wire. Hey, I didn’t say the technology improved quickly. It wasn’t until the 1980s, roughly 60 years after the first wire-photo was sent, that faxing in offices really took off. Inexpensive long distance calling meant that it was reasonably cheap to send faxes from place to place, and while the image quality was poor, at least you could send a page in under three minutes. That sounded like a really good deal at the time.

“Fax,” by the way, is a short for of “facsimile.” The whole point of the technology was that you were sending a crude facsimile of a printed page across a phone line. Crude, yes. but still very legible. Fax technology really turbocharged the wold of business.

Fax as a critical part of business life

The 1990s were the heyday of the fax, as companies bought large machines with multiple lines and long memories as well as inexpensive devices that were easy to set up and used plain copier paper. There isn’t an office worker out there from those days who doesn’t remember this sound:

Faxing didn’t rule for long, though, as e-mail quickly crept up behind it. By 2000, pretty much every office worker had e-mail and many had access to scanners, required to send printed documents. By 2010, of course, no one cared about scanning, since all you needed to do was attach the original file. Fax was officially dead. Today you’re more likely to see a fax machine at a thrift store than an office supply store. It’s a shame since toward the end, they were getting pretty good (and even found a way to mute the awful sound.)

Still as good as a fax was, it never had a chance against the perfect, full color digital reproduction of an e-mail attachment, and with e-mail, you don’t have to worry about someone picking up the phone and you losing the transmission.

Fax may be obsolete…

…but believe it or not it still hasn’t gone away. There are a few industries that rely on fax as if MC Hammer was still making records. Law firms, real estate companies, even some doctors’ offices still use fax. Today, faxes automatically translate into an email attachment, though. At least, most of them do. It’s pretty rare to see a real fax machine.

These industries have one thing in common: they’re built around contracts that require signatures. Even though it’s been legal to sign electronically for 20 years, a lot of offices still want something that looks like it has a real signature. If you can’t sign it in person, they want you to sign it and fax it. I don’t know about you, but at this point I’d have no choice but to sign it in person. I haven’t seen a fax machine in years.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.