A Scottish clockmaker and inventor named Alexander Bain patented the first facsimile machine on May 27, 1843, thirty-three years before Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone.
It took another few decades before the invention got any significant use. A commercial fax service (called “pantelegraphes”) opened between the French cities of Paris and Lyon in 1865, but faxes didn’t really come into their own until 1906, when newspapers began regularly running photos in their pages and a device that could transmit photo images over long-distance phone lines became a necessity.
For more than seventy years, news photos were the primary use for fax machines, but that began changing in the early 1980s. Ironically, you can credit Federal Express for a near-universal adoption of fax machines, while being perhaps their biggest victim as well.
FedEx helped whet the appetite for faster mail in the first place with the introduction of its overnight mail service.
When its management team got wind that several manufacturers were developing fax machines for business use, FedEx panicked, figuring that fax could eliminate the need for most of their overnight express services.
They ordered 13,000 fax machines, complete with customized purple ink to match their logo, and, beginning in 1984, heavily advertised their “Zap Mail” same-day service: for $3 to $4 a page, they would send a driver to pick up your document and take it back to the local office to zap it to another office, which would then deliver the facsimile to its destination all within hours.
At the time, well before e-mail and when most people had no idea what a fax machine was, Zap Mail was considered magic. But shortly afterward, fax machines started flooding the market.
It didn’t take businesses long to figure out that it would be much cheaper and more convenient to buy their own machines than use Federal Express’s expensive Zap Mail service.
FedEx helped create a market, but when it dropped Zap Mail in 1988, it ended up taking a loss of $250 million when it got stuck holding 13,000 machines and barrels full of purple ink.