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Significant Scots
Alexander Bain

Many of the inventions concerned with telecommunications spent some time languishing on the sidelines before society found a profitable use for them. The fax machine was certainly no exception. The patent for the fax machine was granted on 27 May 1843, 33 years before the patent was given for the telephone.

The inventor was a Scotsman called Alexander Bain. He was apprenticed to a clockmaker in Wick where he also invented the first electric clock which was powered by an electromagnet propelling a pendulum. He patented the fax machine on his move to London. As usual, this innovation was slow to take off. The first commercial fax service was opened between Paris and Lyon in 1865 and they were called pantélégraphes. Faxes really came into their own in 1906 when they found their first major use, to transmit photos for newspapers.

The way that a fax machine works is very simple. The page to be sent is divided into strips. Each line is then broken up into black and white segments which can then be sent like the dots and dashes of Morse Code and put together at the other end. Digital fax machines have only changed this principles slightly. Pages are now divided into tiny squares called Pels, each of which can be either black or white.

The Petition of Alexander Bain (pdf)
An Account of some remarkable applications of the Electric Fluid to the useful arts by Mr Alexander Bain (pdf)

From the Dictionary of National Biography...

BAIN, ALEXANDER (1810-1877), the author of several important telegraphic inventions, the chief of which was the automatic chemical telegraph, was born in the parish of Watten, Caithness-shire. After having served as apprentice to a clockmaker at Wick, he came up to London in 1837 as a journeyman. He was led, bv lectures which lie attended at the Adelaide Gallery, to apply electricity to the working of clocks, and was one of the first to devise a method by which a number of clocks could be worked electrically from a standard time-keeper, though the credit of this invention is claimed by Wheatstone as well as by Bain. It is doubtful, again, whether he was the inventor of the first printing telegraph, as this too is disputed. In both cases he was unquestionably very earty in the field. He discovered independently the use of the earth circuit, but here he was certainly anticipated by Steinkeil. Electric fire-alarms and sounding apparatus were also among his inventions. His most important invention was the chemical telegraph of 1843 previously mentioned. This apparatus could be worked at a speed hitherto impossible, and its invention certainly entitles Bain to the credit of being the pioneer of modern high-speed telegraphy. It is stated that the rate at which the apparatus was capable of working was discovered accidentally, in consequence of the breaking of a spring during an experiment. The machine ran down, but the message was nevertheless properly received. Perhaps the most valuable part of the invention consisted in the use of strips of perforated paper for the. transmission of the message. This contrivance was long after adopted by Wheatstone, and is in use in all the existing high-speed systems of telegraphy. He received as much as 7,000l for his telegraphic patents, but the money was wasted in litigation, and he died a poor man. Intemperance was another cause of his non-success in life. In 1873 he received a grant from the Royal Society of 1507, and at the time of his death he was supported by a government pension of 807 a year.

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