And speaking of vintage technology…

Fax machine

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. Just take that vintage technology away, please!

Right. Last night I wrote about 8-track tapes, a vague part of my 1960s and ’70s childhood at the Manse that were, in my opinion, pretty close to the worst technology ever. Certainly the worst music technology ever – though the interesting folks at a site I linked to in that post, 8-Track Heaven (“If we don’t care for the 8-track, who will?”), might disagree.

So this evening as I was enjoying my weekly read of the Tweed News – catching up on the goings-on at the Chapman Women’s Institute and the winners at the weekly euchre party, among other things – I came across another entertaining reminder of technology that has mercifully faded away: fax machines. Remember those?

I mean, I know most of us do still occasionally have some connection with a sent or received fax – for instance, in my experience the medical community is still unaccountably attached to faxing, for things like prescription renewals and whatnot – but really, when most people (including doctors, if they actually tried) can scan a document on their printer and email it on their computer, who needs fax machines?

thermal fax machine

I guess this is kind of a “Fax Machines for Dummies” from back in the early days. Note the roll of “thermal paper” on the right – remember that godawful slippery paper that you couldn’t even put in the recycling bin when you were done with it?

The Tweed News’s always-entertaining Days Gone By column has given me a smile in reminding me of when that clunky technology was so new and promising. Listen to this, from the Tweed News of 25 years ago – March 1, 1989 (which, truth be told, feels like yesterday), to be exact:

Just the fax – The facsimile (FAX) machine has become almost as common an office feature as the personal computer. The FAX works through a telephone line to deliver hard copy to another FAX machine. Their advantages are that the material is received almost instantaneously, and the machines can reproduce handwriting, computer print-outs, and typed pages and pictures. David Newman of Canada Post said that although the FAX is gaining popularity, “it has no appreciable effect on the post office.” He said in this information age, the annual volume of mail is growing each year, including business mail. “FAX doesn’t take away from the market area. It’s not cheap ($2 base charge plus $4 per page), but it’s not priced out of the market. People said TV would make the radio obsolete, and it didn’t. Not everyone has a FAX, and Canada Post is the only organization that walks by 10 million doors a day.”

Now, you will surely see that there are two astounding and ironic figures in that passage. One: $4 a page to send a fax? That’s just nuts. And two: Canada Post’s spokesman boldly announcing that this technology business was no threat whatsoever to an organization that “walks by 10 million doors a day.”

Ah, how times change.

20 thoughts on “And speaking of vintage technology…

  1. Hi, Katherine. Those “vintage” fax machines looked positively futuristic when they arrived at our offices. They replaced a real dinosaur — the telecopier. I’ll bet you’ve never used one of those. They were an early fax machine, but so slow and bothersome. Each page had to be transmitted individually. There were settings for resolution — best resolution took six minutes per page. Lesser quality was four minutes, and if you were really in a hurry and didn’t care that the person on the other end couldn’t read what you were sending, you could use the two minute setting. At the end of each page being sent, the machines would screech (louder than dial-up modems). That would be to call the operators to the machines, pick up each other’s phone and say, “oh, did that come through OK?” “Yes, it did.” “Good, I’ll send page 2 now.” Or, “No, I can’t make it out, so please try again.”

    The machine did not have its own dedicated phone line or phone set. Any phone would work, and the phone receiver would be inserted into a coupler on the telecopier. And when the machine was receiving the data, it made a terrible smell, almost like sulphur or something as offensive. And, the machine did not cut the pages from the roll of paper. If you received a 15 page document, you had 15 pages all on one long sheet of paper and then you’d have to get out the scissors. Imagine the mess when walking into the office first thing in the morning and looking at this miles-long roll of paper all over the floor.

    Oh, believe me — I’ll gladly take your antiquated fax machine over those awful telecopiers.

    • Gracious, Sash, that does sound like awful technology! Though as I recall, early faxes (the ones on that thermal paper) also came through as one long sheet. Yes, in many ways things really have got better, technology-wise.

      • Well, the most amazing part of that telecopier business was how ” … we pick up each other’s phone …” Really (I’d be in Toronto and my colleague could be in Ottawa, but we’d pick up each other’s phone!) I read that AFTER I read it twice before posting and then it hit me … duhhhh.

  2. I’ve made a mistake in my last post. The over-night “miles-long” mess of paper happened with the fax machines that you’ve shown (prior to the invention of machines that would cut the pages — before we started using copier paper models.) So, that model (which did not require operator intervention) could have received faxes at any hour. The earlier telecopier required an operator at each end, so its use was restricted to office hours.

      • I think I’ll switch to smoke signals. [Although rumour has it that they don’t work so well at night or on windy days.]

      • Right. Maybe it would be better to switch to the reliable method: two tin cans connected with string??

      • Believe me, Sash, there have been times here at the Manse when neither phone nor internet signals would behave that I would have been happy with a string and two tin cans!

      • The Telex? Yes, I used to work with one of those. We had one of the older models, and then it got replaced with a newer one (around 1978). The newer one was faster and not as clunky. The first one was slow. One advantage was that it created a ticker-tape. If the person you were telexing had trouble receiving your message, you could try later just by saving the tape and running it through the machine’s reader and re-transmitting without having to re-type. And the machines were fairly big (floor console model.)

      • It was used for transmitting messages, terminal to terminal. When it received messages, it actually typed the message. They were usually placed in a file room or out of the way somewhere, as they could be noisy when printing. It sounded like a typewriter clattering away. Attachments could not sent, and you could not send to multiple recipients unless you called each terminal individually from your terminal and then re-ran the tape through the reader again. At the time, they were great for sending messages immediately, without relying on the Post Office or telegrams. Once the telecopier/fax was introduced, the telex machine was replaced — like when typewriters were replaced by word processing machines ($20,000 for a Micom word processor, and all it did was word processing!)

      • Oh yes, I very vaguely recall the insanely high cost of “word processors” when they were new. Wouldn’t we all have been knocked over by a feather in those days if we had the barest hint of the iPhone? Meanwhile, a followup question on the Telex: what would be the difference between that and the teletype machines I remember from long-ago newsrooms, the ones that “copy” would noisily come in on?

      • I’m afraid I don’t know anything about teletypes, sorry. Maybe they could transmit to several locations at the same time? But, how things have changed over the years. Imagine taking a photo at the Oscars 50 years ago. How long would it take for that to be published by media outlets? Yet, last night, a selfie was taken and it was all over the world within seconds.

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