Scottish crofter's son invented the fax machine 150 years ago

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The Independent Online
THE FAX machine, which is supposed to let you run a business as easily in a remote Scottish croft as in the centre of a city, was invented 150 years ago . . . in a remote Scottish croft. The inventor used heather as springs and cattle jawbones for hinges.

A little-known patent was filed in 1843 by Alexander Bain, a crofter's son. But it took nearly a century and a half to become the favoured medium of communication in the global village.

Bain's invention came more than 30 years before another Scotsman, Alexander Graham Bell, invented the telephone. The French built 7ft high versions of his fax machine to operate between Paris and Lyon for a few years in the 1860s, but the experiment failed, largely because the pace of life was fairly slow.

Bain's fax relied on pulses of electric currents transmitted over telegraph lines to send images. Britain's failure to capitalise on it may have had something to do with the title he gave it: 'Certain Improvements in Producing and Regulating Electric Currents, and Improvements in Electric Time- Pieces, and in Electric Printing and Signal Telegraphs.'

Next week, however, Bain's contribution will finally attract the recognition it deserves. A working model of the French fax will go on display at the Science Museum in London. It will also be celebrated in a Channel 4 programme on 18 February presented by Tim Hunkin, a cartoonist and engineer who re-discovered the 1843 patent.

Mr Hunkin, who built the replica machine for the museum, said Bain's invention is 'one of those little known things that occur in the footnotes of scientific books'.

It works by swinging two pendulums in synchrony. The sender's makes electrical contact with a raised image, and the receiver's swings over heat-sensitive paper that turns black when an electric current flows (see drawing).

Bain, who also invented the electric clock, first began experimenting with electromagnetic pendulums in his father's Caithness croft, where he used anything he could find to build prototypes, including heather and animal bones.

Bain himself soon lost interest in the fax machine and spent much of his later life wrangling with more famous inventors over alleged infringments of patents on his other inventions. He died penniless in a home for incurables, Mr Hunkin said. 'He developed a complex that everyone was against him.'

Leading article, page 24

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