Remember When Fax Machines Were the High-Tech Future?

By Matt Novak on at

When was the last time you sent a fax? 2000? 1995? Never and you hardly even know what a fax is because you're just too young? Fair enough. But the fax machine was the high-tech device of its day. And even in the world of Back to the Future Part II, it plays an important role. Which is probably why it looks so silly to us here in the year 2015.

There's a good reason we think of fax technology's heyday as being in the 1980s. When the sequel to Back to the Future came out in 1989 there were over 10 million fax machines in the world. And it showed up again and again as the quick and easy way to communicate messages of all kinds. But amazingly, the origins of facsimile technology actually date back to the 1840s.

A Scottish inventor named Alexander Bain was working on how to make two clocks sync up perfectly in 1843. He realised that once he was able to coordinate the pendulum's swing from one clock to another, he would be able to attach a stylus-type device to one and more or less "trace" a design from a distance.

Bain's device was way too slow when pitted against the telegraph, but other inventors like Frederick Bakewell would take up the cause, displaying his own fax machine at the 1851 Universal Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London. Neither Bakewell nor Bain's devices would get a commercial release.

Obviously, the technology underlying the fax machine would evolve over the next century, first being widely adopted by newspapers which were able to send photos across the Atlantic Ocean. The Wirephoto system (as it was then known) became a huge hit and set the world's pictorial news at an even faster rate.

In the universe of Back to the Future Part II's 2015, fax machines spit out notices to Marty McFly that he's been fired. His boss caught him doing something shady with a co-worker over the videophone, and that was apparently a fireable offence. But fax technology is far from futuristic or even commonplace here in our world of smartphones and internet.

Remember When Fax Machines Were the High-Tech Future?

One of the most interesting things about BTTF2 as an artefact of futurism is that the film was released just before the rise of the world wide web. The internet existed in the 1980s, but the backbone had not yet been privatised and the web had not yet been invented. Few people could anticipate just how revolutionary the internet would be once it became mainstream.

Here in the real year 2015, a real life Marty McFly probably wouldn't be fired by fax, but the fax machine is far from dead. It's hard to parse precisely how many fax machines are sold since they're generally included as part of a multi-purpose device like a printer or scanner. But rest assured that the tech is still out there whenever you might need it.

Fax machines are actually still quite popular in Japan. And you know that much like vinyl records or pager fashion accessories, faxes will probably end up being retro-cool before long.

Image: Screenshot from Back to the Future Part II