The Fax Turns 50

Apr 24, 2017

The Fax Turns 50

There are times when the medium becomes as famous as the message – Paul Revere’s horse ride to warn Americans about the British advance, Neil Armstrong’s “One small step” speech transmitted by shaky video camera from the moon, Thomas Edison making the first ever phone call to his assistant: “Watson, come here, I need you.”

The fax machine has also earned its place in history. Xerox launched the first commercial fax machine in May 1964, and over the next decade, fax became the cool new way to keep in touch. All you needed was a phone line and you could exchange documents with anyone around the globe. Businesses, journalists, politicians – people were addicted to their fax machines just as we are glued to our smartphones now.

Recently in Australia there was a famous fax message that will surely go down in political history, but there are other faxes just as famous. As the fax enters its second half-century, here are some memorable exchanges made using this versatile medium.

1995 - Michael Jordan’s comeback fax
Twenty years ago basketball legend Michael Jordan announced his return to the game with a two-word fax: “I’m back.” It was a time when email was still not widely used, when fax was the most reliable and internationally recognised form of communication there was. Jordan’s return after 17 months in retirement was huge news and it spread around the world via fax. At the time, there was ‘fax on demand’, where organisations uploaded media releases to a host machine and journalists dialed in at any hour to receive a faxed update.

2011 - Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding invite fax
The invitations for Prince William and Kate’s wedding went out via fax. Courtiers told the British press that this was the most efficient way of doing it. To be fair, these were “save the date” announcements for the Westminster Abbey event, and the more ornate formal invitations were sent out later. But this was the first official news regarding who was invited, and royals and heads of state around the world waited anxiously beside their fax machines to see if they had made the list.

1995 - Stephen Hawking’s time travel fax
Britain’s The Face magazine was the ultimate in Brit style and fashion in the 80s, but by the mid-90s, it seemed to be losing its way. In 1995, to celebrate its 15th birthday, the magazine faxed physicist Stephen Hawking asking him for a time travel formula. Hawking faxed back: “Thank you for your recent fax. I do not have any equations for time travel. If I had, I would win the National Lottery every week.”

Faxing is still just as popular today, although the method of transmission has changed from a clunky fax machine to online fax using the cloud. It’s now possible to receive or send a fax online in Malaysia or overseas by linking a virtual fax number to an email client or using a smartphone app.

It’s interesting to think that many of the business negotiations conducted by internet giants like Microsoft in the 70s and 80s were via fax. Faxing has a colourful past, but it also has an interesting future as it incorporates the enhanced capabilities of the cloud.

And that famous Australian message we mentioned earlier? Prime Minister Tony Abbott sent his resignation letter to the Governor-General on September 15, 2015... by fax.