The fax machine was invented while people were traveling the Oregon Trail.

  • Alexander Bain
Alexander Bain
Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

While the fax machine may conjure up images of corporate offices in the 1980s and ’90s, its history actually goes further back than that — much further than you would think, in fact. The earliest version of the fax machine was patented in 1843, the same year the first large-scale wagon train traversed the Oregon Trail. 

At the time of the Great Emigration of 1843 — when an estimated 1,000 pioneers set out from Independence, Missouri, heading westward — the American West remained an uncharted frontier, while the Industrial Revolution was rapidly modernizing Britain and the eastern United States. Case in point: The original version of the fax machine was created in 1843 by Scottish engineer and clockmaker Alexander Bain, who made use of the telegraph technology that had been invented the previous decade. The “facsimile machine” (which was later shortened to “fax”) worked by attaching a stylus to a clock pendulum that sent information along a telegraph line, which was recreated by a similar device at the other end. Bain’s machine could only transmit images of text, but it laid the groundwork for a series of innovations that led to the modern fax machine.

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