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What Is a Fax?

By Kenneth W. Michael Wills
Updated May 17, 2024
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An invention of Alexander Bain, a Scottish clockmaker, the fax or facsimile was first introduced in 1842. It consisted of a machine that could translate signals from the telegraph and reproduce those signals as an image on paper. Since that time, the facsimile has evolved into a sophisticated communication medium that is capable of converting an image into electrical and digital data signals, transmitting them over telephone lines, and reconfiguring those signals back into the original image on paper or film. The facsimile has the capability to interpret and transmit images, texts, photographs, drawings, written words and even entire maps. Businesses all over the world rely on facsimile technology to expedite the transmission of important documents that are time- and security-sensitive.

Fax machines, which are the main source for distributing faxes, work by scanning and reproducing a document into a bitmap image. The image is then coded by the facsimile machine into electronic or digital signals and transmited through a telephone network to another fax machine. On the other end, the receiving facsimile machine will interpret the electronic or digital signals, translate them back into bitmap data, and print out the original image on paper. Users of a facsimile machine accomplish this by using a telephone number assigned to the fax machine, to transmit the fax to another facsimile machine assigned a telephone number and linked to a telephone network. Depending on the size of the document and number of pages, this process usually takes just a few minutes to complete.

With the advent of the Internet, the facsimile machine has faced some stiff challenges from other technological advances that allow for documents to be sent online. A simple method is simply deploying a scanner to scan the document and using emails to send the document as an attachment. Security, however, is sometimes a concern, particularly on unencrypted platforms. Therefore, some businesses still rely on the facsimile to help mitigate the dangers associated with unencrypted platforms that may allow for the document to be intercepted.

In addition to facsimile machines, many businesses will deploy fax servers that will receive incoming faxes and store them on the hard drive of the server. Advantages of using a fax server over multiple fax machines is the reduction of costs associated with printing out several faxes daily, while eliminating wastage associated with printing unneeded faxes. Facsimile providers are also another option businesses can use, allowing for the transmission of faxes over the Internet. Using a provider allows the user to eliminate the expenses associated with traditional faxing methods.

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Discussion Comments

By giddion — On Jul 20, 2012

I am a graphic designer, and I often receive the information that I have to use in ads from clients via fax. Some of them don't realize that their original document's margins extended out past what the fax machine can scan, and I have to call them to get the missing bits of information.

There is a car dealer who sends me a ton of handwritten information for up to fifty cars for his ad every month. Often, the cars listed around the edges will have their stock numbers and years cut off by the fax machine. I just leave these blank in the ad until I can talk to him and get the information.

I wish he would get one of those fax printers that can scan, print, and send faxes. Then, maybe he could experiment by scanning in his stuff first to see if it will fit on the fax before sending it to me.

By DylanB — On Jul 19, 2012

I had my land line up until about ten years ago. I can remember getting calls from fax machines to my telephone, and the sound they made was just awful!

Since I've been using a cell phone, I haven't gotten any wrong numbers from fax machines. I remember waiting for a call from a boy back in the day before caller ID and being so disappointed to answer the phone and hear all that static and beeping. It added insult to injury!

Now that I use a fax machine at my office daily, I am extra careful to double check the number I dial before sending the fax. I would hate to be the source of disappointment for some other young girl out there anticipating a call!

By lighth0se33 — On Jul 19, 2012

@golf07 – I still have my fax machine, but I have been getting an increasing number of requests from customers to send documents via email instead of faxing them. However, plenty of them still prefer to receive faxes, so it is necessary for me to have both.

Personally, I would rather use a fax machine than a scanner. My scanner takes its time importing the documents, while the fax machine sends them right out.

The main goal is to keep the customers happy, so I will use either method without complaining or suggesting a different one. I will probably always keep my fax machine, regardless of whether anyone still needs to be faxed anymore.

By healthy4life — On Jul 18, 2012

@myharley – We have one fax machine in our office, and we use it all day long. I'm glad to hear that other people still use fax machines as much as we do.

I work at a newspaper that has been in business for over a hundred years. A lot of our technology has changed, but there are a few things that we still do the old school way.

Every few minutes, I hear the fax machine dialing a number. Sometimes, it gets a busy signal or a voice saying that the number is unavailable, and it will do this over and over until someone in the office pushes the button to hang it up. This can get really annoying, because many people tend to send their faxes and walk away, not waiting around to make sure that they go through.

By honeybees — On Jul 18, 2012

This article mentions security as a concern for sending faxes as an email attachment. Sometimes I would rather send a fax as an email attachment than have it sitting in the fax machine at an office before the intended person receives it.

I have worked in office settings were incoming faxes can sit at the machine for several hours before the intended person picks it up.

If I send a fax over the email, and know it is a secure site, I know the fax is going specifically to the person who is supposed to receive it. I also know when the person opens up the attachment to view the fax, it won't be sitting in an office area for other people to pick up and read.

By golf07 — On Jul 17, 2012

I used to have a fax machine in my home office which came in pretty handy from time to time. Even though I didn't use it on a daily basis, it was a life saver more than once.

Sending a fax was quick and easy, and I didn't have to run to a business that would fax it for me. When we got rid of our land line telephone, I also got rid of the fax machine.

Now when I need to send a fax I just scan the document and send it as an email attachment. I don't think this is quite as quick as inserting the pages in the machine and punching in the number, but it still gets the job done.

By andee — On Jul 16, 2012

I do a lot of office work at home on my computer and instead of purchasing a fax machine that takes up a lot of room, I subscribe to an online fax service.

One nice thing about this is the service I use is free for incoming faxes. I could pay a fee to have a local phone number or for other services, but the main reason I need it is to receive faxes.

Most companies don't care if they are sending to a local or a long distance number so this has never been a problem. When I have an incoming fax, I receive an email with an attachment which I can open and view or print off the information.

This not only saves me money, but I also don't have to worry about a fax machine taking up space on my desk or the bother of maintaining a machine. For me receiving an electronic fax is much easier than relying on a machine.

By myharley — On Jul 16, 2012

I didn't realize the fax machine has been around as long as it has. Ever since I started working I have used a fax machine, but thought it had been invented much later than 1842.

We still rely on a fax machine quite a bit at my work. It is not unusual to hear the sound of the fax machine receiving an incoming fax many times throughout the day.

My desk is close to the main fax in our office, so I am more aware of how much use it gets during the day. Employees are constantly walking back and forth to the machine to send or receive a fax.

We are not a huge office, so we don't pay for a fax service, but just have a couple individual fax machines within our office area.

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