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175 years of fax

Alexander Bain's signature

When the picture learned to turn into electricity

Alexander Bain

Alexander Bain

When the picture learned to turn into electricity
Who would have thought fax was such an old invention? That it was patented long before the phone? That it's older than the phonograph or the record?

On 27 May 1843 the Scotsman Alexander Bain received a British patent (No. 9745) entitled "Improvements in producing and regulating electric currents and improvements in timepieces and in electric printing and signal telegraphs". This is actually the invention of telefax and scanner technology.

But this groundbreaking patent is not even Bain's most famous! He became known above all as the creator of the first electric clock.
Bain's career as one of the greatest inventors of his time was not very likely at the beginning. He was born on 12 October 1811 in Wattens near Caithness in the far north of Scotland. He was one of 13 children of a poor crofter.

A Scottish crofter's boy invents the electric clock and the fax

"Improved telegraph", 1850

"Improved telegraph", 1850

Bain had a tough childhood and wasn't exactly outstanding at school. At the age of 12, he began training with a watchmaker in the nearby town of Wick. He then went to Edinburgh and in 1837 to London, where he worked in Clerkenwell, then famous for its watch factories. In London, Bain attended lectures at the Polytechnic Institution, the first of its kind in the UK. Later he opened his own workshop on Hanover Street.
Bain began developing various electrical devices in the 1830s, such as a fire alarm for the army. In 1841 he received the patent for the first electric watch together with John Barwise. An electromagnet drove her pendulum. One of these clocks can be seen today in the German Clock Museum in the Black Forest. Charles Wheatstone stole this principle and presented it a little later as his own invention, but fortunately Bain had already applied for the patent. Thus began one of several copyright disputes that unfortunately would accompany Bain until the end of his life.

The electronic image decomposition is discovered

From patent US6837A

From patent US6837A

In 1837, Samuel Morse developed the first telegraph. Bain combined this innovation with his clockmaker´s know-how and developed his telegraph. Thus he created the basics of electronic image decomposition and the basis for scanners and television.

His telegraph made it possible to transmit black and white images electrically. The principle was actually simple: The page to be sent was divided into thin strips and these in turn into small black and white segments. These could be sent like "dot" and "bar" in the Morse code and reassembled by the recipient.

With a clock he synchronized the movement of two pendulums to scan the message line by line. Bain mounted metal pins on a cylinder of insulating material for the transfer. An electrical probe, which emitted switching on and off pulses, scanned these pins. The message was reproduced in the receiving station on electrochemically sensitive paper impregnated with a chemical solution. Transmitter and receiver were connected via five wires.

The late success of his inventions

Bains system was improved by Frederick Collier Bakewell in 1847 by mounting the image to be transmitted on a rotating roller and scanning the image element by image element in a helical manner with a metal pin. Registration was similar on the receiving side. The first commercial fax service was then established in 1865 between Paris and Lyon with "Pantelegraphen", a development of the Italian physicist Giovanni Caselli, which partially combined concepts of Bains' and Bakewell's devices. From 1906 onwards, newspapers used the system to transfer photos.

Bain pdf-Datei developed his apparatus further and received new patents, including for the pdf-Datei chemical telegraph. This took up Morse’s principle again, but made the transmission much faster. Morse saw his patent infringed and fought back.

The legal disputes devoured large chunks of Bain’s at times considerable wealth. He died impoverished on 2 January 1877 in Kirkintilloch, Scotland. Yet his achievements are not forgotten: in 2016 Bain was posthumously awarded an "Emmy" (the most important American television prize) for "his pioneering work in image transmission".

Picture 1: US5957, Picture 2: unkown photographer, Picture 3: Drawing by Bain, Picture 3: US6837A

Last updated: 25/03/19 


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