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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

Just (about) the fax

This week in the office I picked up a telephone handset for what I realised was the first time in several years. I’ve had a work mobile for three so just haven’t had to, plus the landlines have to be logged in to work properly in any event. It reminded me of that other telephonic communication method which, thirty years ago, was the most advanced thing in the non-computerised place where I began my working life but which we now don’t even have around anymore – the fax machine.

You can find the history of the device elsewhere, but the way in which it evolved is worth noting here. Today they use plain stock but remember those smooth rolls of thermally-sensitive paper that had to be cut for each page and whose printed text fades as the years go by? And to make sure what you sent physically went through, an inked dot used to be printed on the original but this eventually changed to what we would now term a screenshot of the first/only page being output on a slip of paper as confirmation (and don’t forget the ‘ok’ check to see if the other machine actually received it). Like the video cassette recorder, electro-mechanical technology was pushed relentlessly to squeeze the very last possible refinements out of the basic concept.

But the real interest lies in how long the fax itself has lasted, surviving well into the age where most office work involves pushing electrons rather than paper.

In Britain the NHS was reported by parliament as late as 2017 as being the world’s largest purchaser of fax machines, mainly to transmit patient scans. The criminal justice system uses lots of forms and a handwritten signature was still a requirement for most of them until recently, hence the fax survived there too – my own unit only got rid of our machines in 2018, and then only because of a forced relocation. We sometimes used the nifty Goldfax system, which allowed a faxed original to be received as an email.

Perhaps surprisingly it is in Japan of all places where a rearguard action is even now being fought to retain the fax, for government as well as commercial transactions. This article suggests tradition as the reason, and it is also true that 99.7% of Japan's 4.2 million companies are small businesses where that remains strongest. Unsaid too is the complexity of its language and the quirk of Japanese addresses being chronological rather than numerical, a combination making a quick fax the easiest way of explaining where you are.

I wonder when the last one will be switched off.

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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