Logo IMG
HOME > PAST ISSUE > Article Detail


Fax and Context

Henry Petroski

Social and Cultural Factors

American manufacturers of analog fax machines were not totally pleased with their sales in the late 1970s, and they did not expect that a great deal of capital investment in a new technology would pay off very well. So they chose not to pursue the development of digital fax technology the way the Japanese did. The Japanese were more motivated than Americans to develop digital technology, not just for marketing but for cultural reasons, because the multiplicity of phonetic symbols and ideographic characters in Japanese were not easily coded for transmission via telegraph and related systems.

By the 1970s the world's largest facsimile research laboratory was well established under the auspices of Japan's national telephone company. To promote a national fax industry, the Japanese government forced manufacturers to adopt a communications standard that was common for domestic and international telephone operations, funded research and purchased the resulting products. By 1980, the CCITT put forth standards for Group 3 fax machines, in which digital encoding compresses the data to be transmitted, thus lowering the typical transmission time for a page to under a minute. The new standard resolution became 200 dots per inch horizontally and 100 vertically, with a fine-resolution option of 200-by-200 dots per inch. Details regarding session protocol, known as "handshaking," which establishes how the data are to be transmitted between two machines, were also included in the new standard, and by the late 1980s convenient digital fax technology was well established and growing at an enormous rate.

Not only were Group 3 fax machines better at universal communication, but they also were easier and more pleasant to use. Digital and computer-chip technology had automated much of the work of establishing the communication protocol between sending and receiving machines, and thermal printing enabled a relatively inexpensive and odor-free paper to replace the expensive and smelly paper that was common in analog machines. These technological developments made fax machines, which frequently had been relegated to mail rooms and operated by designated employees, more acceptable and allowed their use out in the open by everyone in offices everywhere. Indeed, since the newer fax machines, especially the more expensive office models that used plain paper, employed so much technology that was similar to that in a copier machine, in a pinch fax machines could double as convenient copiers.

Among other significant factors that accelerated the acceptance and use of fax machines were some that might be termed extratechnological or social. By the mid-1980s, thanks in part to some very effective television commercials and advertising campaigns, Federal Express had grown into an ubiquitous overnight-delivery service. The term "Fedex," in fact, came to be used almost generically for all speedy delivery services. In 1984, before every office had its own fax machine, the Federal Express organization invested heavily in a faxing service it called ZapMail, whereby faxed copies of documents could be delivered at unheard-of speeds. Ironically, Federal Express's promotion of fax technology was so effective in selling the idea of faxing documents that the biggest potential customers bought their own fax machines and made the service unnecessary. Federal Express lost over $300 million in the venture, but its enormous success in overnight delivery enabled it to survive even such a large loss.

Another phenomenon of the 1980s that is widely believed to have influenced the rapid adoption of fax technology was the growing dissatisfaction with postal services. People were complaining more and more about how conventional mail (now derisively called "snail mail" by ardent e-mail users) was getting slower and less dependable. Letters were said to be lost and never delivered. At the same time, the presence and use of photocopying machines in offices had made office workers increasingly familiar with the concept of feeding documents into a copier and pressing a few buttons to begin the process. Many newer fax machines were remarkably like office copiers in their looks and operation, so they were less intimidating to use, and there was less resistance to their introduction into the office routine. Faxing a letter was just like long-distance photocopying. By 1987, for the first time, fax machines exported from Japan exceeded that country's domestic consumption of them. Furthermore, over the course of about a decade, from 1980 to 1992, the cost of digital fax machines dropped by a factor of 30, thus making them affordable by the smallest of businesses and even by individuals.

More than 600 different varieties of fax machines were available to the consumer by the early 1990s. In the United States alone, the market for fax machines grew from half a million in 1985 to 6 million in 1991. By the mid-1990s, personal computers were commonly being equipped with fax boards, which made it unnecessary to print out a computer-generated document before faxing it, or on the receiving end, to have to enter the faxed data into yet another computer. Computer-to-computer faxes thus promised to reduce the amount of paper generated in offices, something neither the personal computer itself nor the fax machine had succeeded in doing. Estimates are that the number of pages transmitted via fax rose from 1.5 billion in 1985 to 17 billion in 1991, an increase of an order of magnitude in only six years. As much as 40 percent of telephone traffic between the United States and Japan was estimated to involve fax transmissions.

comments powered by Disqus


Subscribe to American Scientist