Egypt's Protesters Rediscover The Fax Machine

The 2003 Lexmark X6170 all-in-one fax machine. i i

hide captionThe 2003 Lexmark X6170 all-in-one fax machine.

Lexmark International, Inc./PRNewsFoto
The 2003 Lexmark X6170 all-in-one fax machine.

The 2003 Lexmark X6170 all-in-one fax machine.

Lexmark International, Inc./PRNewsFoto

Amid the new-order demands of recent protest in Egypt, one old-order piece of technology has regained prominence: the fax machine.

Dusty and dormant in most American offices, lowly fax machines have whirred to life in Egypt, according to the BBC.

When Internet service and social media were disrupted in late January — allegedly blocked by the regime of President Hosni Mubarak as tens of thousands made their way to Cairo's main square to demand change — faxes were sent "by online activists and others who wanted to contact people inside Egypt and pass on information about how to restore net access," BBC reports said. "The group of Internet activists known as Anonymous was also using faxes to get information to students at several schools in the country. Anonymous activists have been faxing copies of cables from WikiLeaks relating to Egypt in the hope that the information they contain about the Mubarak regime will be more widely distributed."

In other words, for some Egyptians the fax machine has become an essential part of the Twitter toolkit. Want to send words or pictures to someone by land line? There may not be an app for that, but there is a fax machine.

The ultimate impact of the faxed information, everyone agrees, will take awhile to sort out. It is not restoring peace or saving lives, but it is playing a solid role in a fluid situation.

Comforted By Older Technologies

This is not the first time simpler technology has come through in a crisis. There are other examples:

  • During the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, amateur radio operators — using rudimentary broadcasting equipment and techniques — were able to help people find medical care when other, fancier forms of communication were down. (Amateur radio devices, or "ham radios," are also being used in Egypt.)

  • When the Interstate 35 West bridge collapsed in Minnesota in August 2007, MSNBC reported that some survivors were unable to make cell phone calls, but could send text messages because texting uses fewer network resources than voice calls use.

  • On Thursday, the e-mail server at the White House was on the fritz for several hours, according to Politico. "We're actually picking up that old device called the telephone and calling people," one aide said. "And we're reading documents in paper form." Another staffer sent a fax "for the first time in years," Politico reported.

In emergencies, says Henry Petroski, people might fall back on older technologies because they are just more comfortable. Petroski is a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University and author of a number of books including The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. He is a longtime student of evolving technologies and their effect on humans.

When people are overwhelmed, as in the I-35 bridge case, Petroski says, "the older technologies — being older and so generally simpler — provide a path of lesser resistance."

A Brief History Of The Fax

The fax machine is most definitely an older technology. It was invented in 1843 and piggybacked on the just-invented telegraph.

Alexander Bain, a clockmaker in Scotland, realized early on that Samuel Morse's dot-dash code used in telegraphy could also be used — in conjunction with chemical-soaked paper — to send signals and images.

In November 1848, Bain wrote a letter to the New York Daily Tribune describing his Electro-Chemical Telegraph, "which transmits and records the signs with great rapidity with a single telegraphic circuit, entirely without secondary circuits and the cumbrous apparatus belonging to them."

Those earliest facsimiles, or "faxes," were transmitted via telegraph wires. Eventually, after the telephone was patented in 1876, faxing was done across telephone lines. From Bain's visionary design and engineering, the modern-day fax machine was born.

In 1987, Time magazine wrote about the increasing popularity of the office fax contraption — a device that combined copy-making technology with telephony. The magazine called it "an electronic wonder" that "can transmit everything from design plans to a picture of the Mona Lisa, in black-and-white at least."

American tech firms, such as Xerox and 3M, were among the initial developers of the bulky and costly gadgets. In the 1980s, Japanese companies introduced computer-controlled fax machinery.

"That cut transmission time for a page from six minutes to 10 seconds," Time observed, "and copy quality improved dramatically. Moreover, a fax no longer hogs office floor space. Most fit on desktops."

In peaceful times, you don't really need a desktop fax machine anymore. Faxing capability is built in to many multipurpose printers — and you can zap faxes from any Internet-linked computer using certain websites. One can also utilize other faster technologies, like e-mailing a copy of a document.

But in tumultuous times, when you don't have an Internet connection, a homely, throwback fax machine can be useful. For one thing, you can use it to reach those who do have connectivity — and can re-tweet your faxed messages.

In desperate times, Petroski says, "we are less interested in fashion than in function."

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