Will The Fax Machine Ever Stop Singing?

Throughout the 80s and 90s, you couldn’t swing a stapler around any size office without hitting a fax machine. But what is it about the fax machine that makes it the subject of so much derision? Is it the beep-boops? The junk faxes? Or do they just seem horribly outdated in the world of cloud storage and thumb drives? Perhaps all of the above is true. While I may be Hackaday’s resident old school office worker et cetera, it may surprise you to learn that I don’t have a fax machine. In fact, the last time I had to fax something, I recall having to give my email address to some website in order to send a single fax for free.

Over across the pond, the UK government has decided to nix the requirement for fax services under something called the Universal Service Order (USO) legislation, which essentially ensures that residents all across the UK have access to phone services at a price they can afford. The UK’s Office of Communications, aka Ofcom, have announced recently that they are in agreement with the government. Since the industry is moving away from the public switched telephone network (PSTN) to IP telephony, the fax machine won’t work the same way.

Just the Fax

Elisha Gray’s telautograph. Image via RedOrbit.

You may already know this, but the facsimile predates the telephone. At first, faxes traveled over wires, then over radio waves, and then over the telephone system. Now, of course, they tend to travel over the Internet to fax servers and are then distributed to individual computers.

Early fax devices were mechanical and chemical, e.g. Alexander Bain’s electric printing telegraph, which he patented in 1843. Italian physicist Giovanni Caselli invented the Pantelegraph, which gave birth to the first telefax service between Paris and Lyon, France in 1865.

In 1880, Shelford Bidwell built first machine capable of scanning any 2D original without manual plotting. Eight years later, Elisha Gray invented the telautograph, which allowed signatures to be sent over long distances. The next innovation came in 1924, when AT&T sent 15 pictures from Cleveland to New York over the telephone. That same year, RCA invented the forerunner of today’s fax machines, the wireless photoradiogram.

Fax of Life

Ofcom gave concerned citizens one month to state their case before the amendment went into effect. The few proponents who piped up pointed out the still-widespread use of fax machines in the legal, medical, and travel fields. And more importantly, this means that other voice band data applications like telecare alarms for those who need them will no longer be supported. But Ofcom assures that they expect service providers to work with customers in these situations to offer alternatives. And upon investigation into the legal, medical, travel, and energy sectors, Ofcom concluded that “the use of fax was minimal and alternatives are being sought where its use still continues,” noted Hansard, the official record of Parliamentary debates.

Interestingly enough, in 2017, the UK’s National Health Service was reported to be the world’s largest purchaser of fax machines, with close to 12,000 in operation in 2018. But the purchase of new machines was outlawed in 2019 by the Department of Health and Social Care, who said that existing ones had to be replaced with email by the end of March 2020.

So, is this really the beginning of the end for the fax machine? While we have many ways of sending photos and documents these days, until electronic signatures are widely accepted, maybe, maybe not. Just a few years ago, we saw an exploit that could remotely execute code via fax, so they still have the attention of bad actors, too.

Banner image: “Day Sixty Four – Fax Machine” by [Yortw].  Thumbnail: “Boy and Fax Machine” by Alyssa L. Miller.

43 thoughts on “Will The Fax Machine Ever Stop Singing?

  1. When I was in rehab in 2019 building up muscle, there was a problem with the fax machine. But I didn’t see it, so wondered if there was still a fax machine, or a comouter, scanner and printer. They were obligated to use the fax system, but did they keep using machines? Real Rube Goldberg.

  2. One of my life’s regrets is buying a rotative facsimile machine at a flea market in the 80’s and somehow losing sight of it over the decades. If only we had infinite storage for stuff we buy or fine and keep just in case.

  3. I really would like to have faxes back. Really.

    It was so much fun and receive ones. Like a postcard or letter but with much faster pace. We faxed between friends and send handwritten funny sheets to eachother – like some sort of “live” zine.

    There must be fax fun group somewhere! If there is, please let me know how I can join.

      1. In 1972, there were articles in the ham magazines about using surpkus fax machines. I was never sure if they suddenly became available, or suddenly an interest. They used SSTV tones, so apparently the two could communicate.

    1. ^ this. Working in the medical field for 25 years, fax machines have always been and are still everywhere in US hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies. Without relying upon layered encryption, email is subject to intercept, something much harder to do—from a distance—with phone lines. These days, I presume fax over IP is common, so I don’t see the objection to continued use of faxes. Banning fax machines just simply seems an instance of somebody not recognizing the workings within other industries rather than other industries being unaware of options.

      The more paranoid amongst us might presume that banning of fax machines and moving toward an alternative is to allow for increased surveillance and logging.

      1. Faxing (including over IP) is built into a lot of printers (usually office oriented machines). All the other needed ingredients (scanner, printer) are already there and modems are cheap.

        1. I recently bought my first fax machine in decades. We needed a new laser printer, and the model with the scanner/copier only cost a bit more, and did fax, and I’ve actually faxed paperwork to people a couple of times (because their “fill in the blanks” PDF didn’t let me fill in all the blanks, just some of them :-)

          OTOH, I’ve still got a landline, partly because my wife wants it for reliability, but also because I’m a telco employee and the landline’s free.

      2. “Without relying upon layered encryption”

        And the point of avoiding encryption is?

        So everyone in the medical industry just either subscribes to an online fax service or continues to pay for and maintain landlines because passing the cost of that on to patients is easier than updating. Just like passing on the cost of any other wastefulness is easy when the customer’s choice is buy or die. It’s a miracle you all aren’t tapping morse code via a telegraph line!

        Meanwhile, once a year or so those of us with family members with medical problems have to make the choice between surrendering our information to a free service we know is going to spam us, purchasing a paid fax service which will probably also spam us or paying up the nose to send a fax from the local FedEx store or whatever the local equivalent is because our insurance companies demand we send this or that via fax.

        And the paranoid are idiots. If their feared overlords want to surveil and log them they are certainly not going to be stopped by an antiquated fax machine.

        It’s not like secure encryption libraries are hard to come by but just say the word internet and the response in your industry is all reflex, zero thought.

        1. Computer software isn’t perfect and makes perfect sense to use the old fax machine. Have you seen the news where tons of companies are be hacked all the time? When was the last time you heard a fax machine being hacked and thousands of files being leaked. Faxing isn’t dead and shouldn’t be, in fact its growing again.

      3. IMO the most compelling security benefit of fax is that the message is stored in many fewer places (if at all, besides the paper copy) than email. Unless you’re under government surveillance, you don’t expect the phone network to store the sounds you send over it.

        By contrast, an email will end up in many places: the sender’s client, the sender’s outbound email server, the recipient’s inbox, the recipient’s client… If any one of those computers get malware, or an attacker figures out your email credentials, your message is at risk.

        (This benefit evaporates if you have to use an email-to-fax or other online fax service.)

        1. I use a pc modem with a standard pots line. The fact is that encryption my not be breakable but human bad habits do, that and poorly written software with holes. However, a fax machine my not be encrypted but accessing the line is pretty near impossible as the line are peer to peer than the open web. Standard old skool faxing is mostly impervious to viruses. So yes faxes are more secure than sending info through the web. Tons of old technology rivals new technology. Tons of old technology is easier to use and far more reliable and some of the old tech needs to be respected and used more. BTW this is coming from a person that is older but knows technology more than most. I run a website from home and I use an Samsung S21 smartphone. I find a home desktop computer beats the crap out of a smartphone. Smartphones while convenient in many ways are also very limited to the old or new desktop computer. However, that’s another topic or is it? As for my faxing I used a desktop computer to do it and some up to date fax software. Old doesn’t mean obsolete and generally if something works well then why change it?

  4. The fact that faxes are an imperfect copy is the reason they are still used. This may no longer be the case, but for a while you were only allowed to send an engineering document with your engineering stamp on it through fax. But you could not send it over email since it would be a perfect copy of the stamp that somebody could use to stamp a new document. kinda silly if you ask me because you could just scan the stamp in from an original document.

    1. There’s also the similarity between telefax and a carbon copy. Perhaps that’s why the classic telefax has a legal value. It’s a copy, but directly created by making a duplicate of the original. Originally, there’s was no memory buffer involved. That’s at least how it worked in the 1980s when *real* fax devices with thermal paper were common. A photodiode scans the document in real time, while sending the dots line by line simultaneously over the phone line.

    1. Been there, done that. Still have a v.92 fax modem in a drawer. I had to send a fax, so I scanned the document, connected the modem to my PC serial port, then connected the modem to the phone port on the fiber router. It worked flawlwssly.

    2. Many DSL/cable routers with VOIP had an option to turn on a telefax compatible mode, which ensured better audio quality. So office’s could safely keep their entire analog infrastructure when moving away from a real landline.

      It’s also possible to use a data/fax modem (serial) from the DOS/Win3.1 times that way. Modern telephone modems (USB/PCI) have a DSP, anyway, so they can change speed depending on the quality of the analog connection.

      Same was true for ISDN, I suppose. Some DSL/cable routers had ISDN ports, for the digital communications equipment from the lateb20th century.

    3. There’s even an ITU standard for FoIP -> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T.38
      Strictly speaking not through VoIP but at least with SIP (I think).
      Unfortunately not many providers support it with some arguing their network is good enough to transport FAXes with the supported voice codecs.

      And with a good enough bandwidth AND connection you can send FAXes through a normal VoIP connection.
      I still use it sometimes to send official papers to the right parties (instead of snail mail).

      1. My ATA has the feature. Didn’t use it much especially when some VOIP providers provide a fax service. Not to mention some printers have “send to email” among other features.

    4. @CRJEEA said: “Next up, sending a fax through VoIP.”

      Analog Facsimile is routinely carried using VoIP via the ITU-T Rec. T.38 fax relay standard.[1][2]

      “The most advanced and reliable method for converting an analog fax signal into a VoIP stream is a technology known as the T.38 protocol. That is why the most reliable fax-over-IP (FoIP) devices may sometimes be called a T.38 adapter.”[3]

      A common example is to simply plug the Fax machine’s analog RJ11 port into the RJ11 port of a VoIP Analog Telephone Adapter (ATA) that supports the T.38 fax relay standard (most do).[4] The RJ45 digital interface on the properly provisioned VoIP ATA is then plugged into the WAN network. Faxes via the T.38 fax relay standard are sent and received end-to-end the exact same way as if the fax machines were plugged into the analog public-switched-telephone-network (PSTN).

      1. ITU-T Rec. T.38 Procedures for real-time Group 3 facsimile communication over IP networks


      2. T.38 – Wikipedia


      3. FAX Adapters: How does a VoIP FAX Analog Telephone Adapter work?


      4. Analog VoIP Gateways


  5. Hunter Thompson was an early adopter of fax technology and “remote work”*. He had an early “portable” fax machine that he used to send his manuscripts to Rolling Stone magazine during his few sober moments. You can read all about it in “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail”, a masterpiece of modern literature, which all got sent through that fax machine.

    * “Remote work” meant “too stoned to make it to the office”.

    Today he would still be writing his drug fueled brilliance on paper and finding some way to zap the papers to his publisher, I can’t imagine that a laptop would be compatible with his lifestyle.

  6. I wonder if anyone’s considered the Japanese market for fax? They are in heavy use, British NHS-style across the whole country. Not just doctor’s offices, but every bureaucratic branch of government, banking, law, in addition to healthcare. Business and daily life in Japan runs on the fax, generally speaking.

  7. My favourite fax story: about 25 years ago, the company I worked for received a lot of junk faxes. One particular offender ignored repeated faxes asking that we be removed from the distribution list. So one night after hours the owner – my boss – took “repeated faxes” to Defcon 5. He penned the “remove us from your list” request on two or three pieces of paper taped together end-to-end, then fed the first sheet into the machine. As the top of the first sheet came out, he taped it to the bottom of the last sheet. Then he left for the night…

    We never again received faxes from that spammer.

    1. Ah you beat me to it! My version uses black paper, which at minimum causes the target machine to run out of toner. Occasionally it would cause something to break, as cheaper machines weren’t designed to handle printing continuously, as typical documents are mostly white. So satisfying…

  8. Back when I had a FAX machine I got advance notice that a McDonald’s was going to be built in my small town. Someone had fumble fingered entering the number for the law office they were supposed to FAX the papers to. It happened to be my number. So I called the recipient number on the print.

    They were wondering where the FAX was. McDonald’s assured them they’d sent it and it had gone through. So I took the print to the law office and promised to not mention to anyone that McDonald’s was going to start construction in a month.

    1. Well I live in the 21st century and use faxes all the time. Sending the private stuff over the net is mostly NOT HIPAA compliant. Faxing is. Also I run a website from home, have a networking degree and I have an S21 smartphone. The internet is NOT secure enough for private data. If our Federal government can crack it then so can everyone else. Only one way to keep computers secure and that is to take the computer offline. Faxing is the closest thing to that and still being able to send private info.

  9. Funny – ( pathetic) fax story:

    I used to repair fax machines for a living, and I got a call to a client with a dead fax. He was operating a business from home. In his case, it was clear that his fax machine took a lightning strike to the modem board, so I would have to get a new board for it.

    He was *very* agitated, and very clearly articulated that he was losing $5000 per hour while his fax was not available. Boy, did he have kittens when I simply suggested that at that cost, he could have a couple of spares in a cupboard…..

    A couple of days later, the board arrived and I installed it and got on with my life.

  10. Fax? I haven’t used a fax since about 1998. I wasn’t even aware these things were still around. But then again, our southern neighbours in Belgium, ended the Telegram services in 2017.

  11. An advantage is that it is point-to-point over a phone line, but seeing it is all VoIP these days; which runs over the internet; it means that advantage is basically voided.
    There’s still something special about it somehow though.
    Same as amateur radio DXing, you can do a HiFi/HD video chat with anybody on the planet over the internet, and yet radio keeps people fascinated.
    But of course as the the internet is now dwindling down to some insanely restricted thing all over the world (yes, even his Twitter) we might find a renewed interest in using alternative means of communication.

    1. not really as it still creates and additional analog connection. So using internet fax is still more secure but not as much as using an old standard pots line. VOIP has its own layer then the FAX has an additional layer of security. Now if that fax is going to an online destination like being stored in an online fax mailbox then your argue is true as the weakest point is getting the password and username to that fax account but regular fax machine to fax machine through VoIP can actually be quite secure.

    1. If you want clandestine email, use a webmail service’s drafts folder as a dead drop. You and the other person both have the login and password to the account. One writes a message with a bogus address and saves it as a draft. The other then logs in later, reads the draft and deletes it. Also, both people use a VPN service that doesn’t keep logs, and both of them connect to the same VPN IP address. All the participants need to do special is use different times to access the account so there aren’t simultaneous login attempts.

      The email has been received without it having been sent. To anyone investigating, it looks as if the same person logged in both times. I’ve no doubt there’s a ton of shady correspondence carried on this way, though such people would have to be a bit smarter than a lot of people who conduct such business and use email and other communications the regular ways.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.