Friday, April 24, 2015

Just the Fax

Remember back, or imagine, a time before the Internet, before email. Incredibly, correspondence was conducted by paper. Documents for loans, credit card applications, legal proceedings or apartment leases were submitted in person or by U.S. Mail. Life proceeded at a snail’s pace. And then the fax (facsimile) was mass-produced and the speed of conducting business changed overnight.

In my work I deal with a variety of suppliers. Periodically throughout the year we sign and exchange necessary documents so that we can continue to do business. It is the rare company at this point that is unable to scan and email the forms I need. When asked for my fax number, I encourage them to use email instead. The fax is essentially obsolete, just a few decades after it gained mainstream acceptance.

I remember my first fax. I was working in California at a computer services company with offices in several locations across the country. We were notified that an important document was being sent from our Boston office.  Get ready to receive a fax!

The machine I was trained on resembled something out of the archives of Alexander Graham Bell, the one that produced the audio, “Mary had a little lamb.”  Pictured below is a system similar to the one I used in 1986. I think it had been around for a while. It communicated through acoustic couplers via a 4800 baud modem. Those of you who recall dialing into AOL in the 1990s are familiar with the electronic whir and chirp of a “handshake” connection being established through a phone line. I heard my first modem siren song in 1972 at the University of Illinois’s computer lab. I remember dialing a 1200 baud connection from our home phone just to see if it would work (it did). That was the year Steve Jobs dropped out of college in Portland, Oregon.

The fax machine I first used had an elongated shiny metal drum. We carefully wrapped a piece of rather expensive heat-sensitive paper around the drum in preparation for an incoming document. We had one chance at receiving the transmission. Screwing up the fax meant having to call the sender to request a re-send. Not cool.

When our machine was ready, we called the Boston office and told them to begin transmitting. Then magic happened. We heard the screeching phone signal through our system. The two machines agreed to talk, and then a thin metal armature began a journey across the slowly rotating metal drum. Variances in temperature were transferred from the armature to the thermally sensitive paper, etching out a rather poor quality representation of the original document. The paper had a slightly oily coating, and touching it anywhere on the surface smudged it immediately due to skin heat. It curled upon removal from the drum, making it even harder to handle.

I dreaded the instances when I was required to use the fax, even though I thought it was pretty fascinating. The opportunity for human error (mine) was far too great. And having come full circle, I still dread receiving faxes. I’m unsure where the receiving multifunction device is located. I have to look up the number, and worse still, it requires that I get out of my chair and walk down the hall. Just send me an email please. I’ll pick it up on my iPhone.