The Fax Machine

Ever wonder why the fax machine has been around for as long as it has, despite new technological advancements surfacing every day?

Here’s some insight into how the tech behind a fax works and how these resilient machines are able to transfer information between each other.

All fax machines and fax transmissions revolve around the same basic concept – they scan a document, transfer the image of that document over to a signal, then send that signal to another fax machine that decodes the signal and prints the document back out.

Early fax machines simply worked on two tones – one for there being an image on a certain point on the page, and one for not being an image on a certain point on a page. This would result in either a black dot or white dot being transmitted over to the other machine.

Just like a computer screen or LCD display is made up of many tiny dots to put a picture together, a fax records that information to send it back in much the same way.

Today’s fax machines are much close to a scanner hardwired into a printer than they are the models from 10-20 years ago. Digital technology has made for a much more accurate picture as well as faster and compressible transmissions.

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A Fax Transmission Example
A fax transmission works in a number of steps – the fax machines handshake, transmit their message, and the send confirmation.

Step 1 – the Handshake
The handshake is the first part of a fax communication.
When a fax is being sent, the sending machine waits for the line to pick up and then starts sending a series of beeps.
These beeps signify that the machine is requesting to send a fax. The sending fax machine is essentially saying “Hey! I’m a fax machine! I’m looking for another fax machine! Is there one there?”

If the machine on the other end is also a fax, that fax will answer the beep with its own signal. At this point the receiving fax machine is saying “Hey you’re a fax? Guess What? I’m a fax too!” And both machines now know that they’ve each made a friend.
Once both machines have acknowledge each other, they send information back and forth about them (just like two people getting to know each other). This information is along the lines of whether they are analog or digital faxes, as well as what compression formats they speak.

Once the two fax machines understand what the other is capable of, they decide on a format to send with, and then start their transmission.

Step 2 – Transmission of Messages
After the handshake has occurred, the sending fax will send the message through to the receiving fax.
As both machines know that they speak the same language, they’re able to send the messages through in a format that they know the other machine knows.

Step 3 – Confirmation of Message Reception
Once the message has been sent, the final step is the confirmation of the message being received. The receiving fax machine will send a confirmation notice that the sending fax machine can now print out.

Today’s fax technology
Today’s version of fax has changed very much from the power machines of the 1980s and 90s.
The majority of fax transmissions now happen through online fax services, fax servers, or fax boards that are part of larger multifunction machines.

Most of today’s fax machines consist of three parts:
A scanner
A printer
A fax modem (phone line)
When sending a fax, the scanner and fax modem work together – the scanner by capturing the document and turning it into a digital signal, and the fax modem by sending that signal over the phone line.

When receiving a fax, the printer and the fax modem work together – the fax modem by collecting the digital signal that arrives over the phone line, and the printer by turning that digital information into a printed piece of paper.

The benefit of this approach is that fax technology can work with a number of printing technologies (ink and toner, across a number of different brands), or a combination of machines (scanning in one area, printing in another, and transmitting faxes through either machine or a computer’s fax server).

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