Reviewed by Anne M. Ricculli
Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (April, 2016)
Commissioned by Sean Seyer
Victorian-era journalists recognized that telegraph technology had revolutionized British communications, and the word "cable" swiftly entered the nineteenth-century English lexicon as both a noun and a verb. Yet as Jonathan Coopersmith has skillfully documented, a contemporary and competing technology--the fax machine--struggled to capture its anticipated market share and public attention despite manufacturers’ claims to superior accuracy and confidentiality in message transmission. This failure to match supply with demand, what Coopersmith identifies as “push and pull,” persisted throughout the 150-year history of faxing. Meticulously researched and deftly narrated, Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine is the first historical account of the life cycle of fax technology. Coopersmith’s primary contribution, however, is his powerful framing of faxing as a series of isolated yet unsustainable advances in the highly competitive arena of electronic communications.
Coopersmith’s study proceeds chronologically in six chapters, offering a multigenerational, multinational history of the fax machine from the 1840s through the first decade of the twenty-first century. The author situates the chapters around various external forces that shaped fax research in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Military and aerospace sectors promoted fax technology because of its potential for the transmission of sensitive documents. Business and industrial demands for rapid printed communication during the rise of what Coopersmith termed the Xerox copying culture in the 1960s contributed to the development of the desktop machine. Persistent throughout this narrative, moreover, were internal negotiations between manufacturers and marketers regarding product compatibility and compliance with regulatory standards. Deliberations surrounding the acceptance of the G3 standards in Tokyo during the late 1970s, Coopersmith observes, centered on the technology's ability to transmit high-resolution images of culturally esteemed handwritten characters and imprint seals. The resolution of these debates contributed directly to the explosion of fax machine production in Japan during the following decade.
Throughout its history, fax technology has been viewed as an alternative communication tool. Coopersmith reveals his skill as a researcher and analyst of corporate archives, government documents, and historical periodicals in his discussion of the development of essential niche markets for fax technology. Newspapers favored picture clarity over cost of transmission and selected faxed photographs over telegraphed images during the interwar years. The media circulated images of events including the succession of Japanese emperor Hirohito in 1928, the abdication of British king Edward VIII, and the Berlin Olympics in 1936. American visual culture was transformed, he notes, because pictures sold papers. The use of fax by early adopters including libraries, hospitals, banks, railroads, interstate trucking firms, and the automotive industry required the concurrent acceptance of the security and legality of these ephemeral documents. Coopersmith scours the archives to disclose transnational trends in advertising and marketing. Within two decades following World War II, the number of fax receivers in Japan exceeded the number of transmitters by a ratio of three to one, suggesting a pattern in the proliferation of faxed messages from central offices. By the end of the twentieth century, half of Japanese households used faxes routinely. Manufacturers leveraged the successful business fax culture in Japan with promotions, including machine loans for students communicating with tutors and instructional magazines that widened the appeal of faxing and broadened domestic applications. At the peak of its popularity, Coopersmith argues, fax “helped change expectations" about the accessibility and dissemination of visual culture (p. 145). Faxing ultimately failed, however, as consumers increasingly turned towards digital technologies to satisfy these same expectations.
Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine is a forceful reminder that the technical history of the fax was indeed multinational. The technology originated in Britain, America, and continental Europe, and its subsequent trajectory was accelerated through Japanese innovation and manufacturing. The global story of the fax, however, remains to be written. Coopersmith briefly explores the use of fax machines in China, Russia, and the Middle East as salient examples of the potential of the technology to widely and rapidly circulate political ideas. From Tiananmen Square to Moscow, in the midst of the Gulf War and Polish Solidarity Movement, individuals used fax machines as essential communication tools during times of political unrest. Yet these networks of machines were located in households, offices, and shops, implying an established and perhaps vibrant fax culture. Coopersmith's book invites an extension of his research into the social, economic, and cultural impact of fax technology in the international context during the twentieth century.
As an historian of technology, Jonathan Coopersmith recognizes that narratives about innovation tend to highlight triumph over defeat, success over failure. His exploration of a consistently underperforming technology documents that the process of design and marketing is rarely linear and often tortuous. Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine demonstrates the value of longitudinal studies of specific elements of communications technology, successfully integrating social and economic histories. Juxtaposing the obvious and the obscure, the momentous and the mundane, Coopersmith leads us inside the black box of fax history, and we emerge with fresh perspectives of one technology whose time has passed but legacy remains.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-sci-med-tech.
Anne M. Ricculli. Review of Coopersmith, Jonathan, Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine.
H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews.
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