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An introduction to fax machines

Short for facsimile machine, a fax machine is a device which sends or receives pictures and text via a telephone line. While the internet has become in recent years a popular way to transmit documents and data, fax technology is still relevant in many situations, as it is cheap, simple and relatively fast. Therefore, it is crucial to understand its different uses, its advantages but also the existing alternatives.

 Fax machine

How does a fax machine work?

The idea of fax machines dates back to the 1840s, when it was derived from telegraphic technology. As a matter of fact, the basic functioning principle is rather uncomplicated, while using such a unit is a fairly straightforward process necessitating little or no training.

Basic principle

Fax machines digitise texts or images and transmit them as an electronic succession of ones and zeroes via a simple telephone line. The receiving unit reads the incoming data and translates the zeroes and ones into dots again, thus reproducing the original document. Three elements are necessary: an optical scanner to digitize documents, a telephone line to transmit data, and a printer to reproduce the documents. Most of the time, fax printers use thermal paper, but high-end models can use regular printer paper.

Using a fax machine

Entry-level machines need to be fed the documents to send one by one. Once the texts or images have been digitized, the receiving machine’s number is dialled, and transfer is nearly immediate. Received documents are printed in an instant. It should be noted that a phone and a fax can share the same line, but not simultaneously.


Advantages and alternatives

Even if fax machines may seem a bit outdated compared with more modern alternatives, they are still relevant in many situations, thanks to their speed, hassle-free operation and affordable cost.


First of all, fax machines are cheap, starting at around £60, up to nearly £300 for high-end models. Thermal paper comes in rolls, which means you only use the length you need. Sending a fax has very little impact on the phone bill, so it remains an economical solution.

Speed and practicality

Data is transmitted at different rates, from 4,800 to 28,800 bits per second. A 9,600 bps machine usually requires 10 to 20 seconds to send one page. Feeding the documents inside the machine is easy, so no staff training is needed. Thermal impression is silent and quick, but thermal paper tends to turn yellowish after a period of time, so documents which need to be filed should be photocopied on proper paper.

Modern alternatives

Of course, using a multi-function printer (MFP) to scan documents and send them via an internet connection is nowadays the way most texts and images are transmitted. It’s quicker, fairly simple, and offers better resolution and transmission speeds. However, when sending documents from remote locations where no connectivity is available or during a short stop during a professional trip, fax machines are still relevant. Besides, there’s no need to fire up a computer and an MFP, just feed the document and dial a phone number.

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