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David E. Borth Corporate Vice President and Director, Communications Research Laboratories, Motorola Inc., Schaumburg, Illinois. Co-author of Introduction to Spread Spectrum Communications.
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Fax, in full facsimile, also called telefax, in telecommunications, transmission and reproduction of documents via wire or radio wave. Common fax machines are designed to scan printed textual and graphic material and then transmit the information over the telephone network to similar machines, where faxes are reproduced close to the form of the original documents. Fax machines revolutionized business and personal correspondence because of their low cost and their reliability, speed and ease of operation. They virtually replaced telegraph services, and they also present an alternative to publicly run postal services and private couriers.
Most office and home fax machines comply with the Group 3 standard, which was adopted in 1980 to ensure the compatibility of digital machines operating through public telephone systems worldwide. As a standard letter-size sheet is fed through a machine, it is repeatedly scanned across its entire width by a charge-coupled device (CCD), a solid-state scanner that has 1,728 photo sensors in a single row. Each photosensor in turn generates a low or high variation in voltage, depending on whether the scanned point is black or white. Since there are normally 4 scan lines per mm (100 scan lines per inch), scanning a single sheet can generate nearly two million variations in tension. The high/low variations are converted to a stream of binary digits, or bits, and the bit stream is subjected to a source encoder, which reduces or “compresses” the number of bits required to represent long series of white or black spots. The coded bit stream can then be modulated onto an analog carrier by a voiceband modem and sent through the telephone network. With source coding, the number of bits required to represent a typed sheet can be reduced from two million to less than 400,000. As a result, at standard fax modem speeds (up to 56,000 bits per second, but usually less) a single page can be transmitted in as little like 15 seconds.
Communication between a sender and a receiving fax machine is opened by dialing the telephone number of the receiving machine. This starts a process known as the “handshake,” in which the two machines exchange signals that establish compatible features such as modem speed, source code, and print resolution. The page information is then transmitted, followed by a signal indicating that no more pages are to be sent. The called machine signals receipt of the message, and the calling machine signals to disconnect the line.
On the receiving machine, the signal is demodulated, decoded and stored for timed release to the printer. In older fax machines, the document was reproduced on special thermally sensitive paper, using a print head that had a row of fine wires that corresponded to the photo sensors in the scanning strip. In modern machines, it is reproduced on plain paper by a xerographic process, in which a minutely focused beam of light from a semiconductor laser or light-emitting diode, modulated by the incoming data stream, is swept over a rotating, electrostatically charged drum. The drum picks up toner powder in charged spots corresponding to black spots on the original document and transfers the toner to the paper.
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Group 3 fax transmission can be done through any telecommunications medium, whether copper wire, optical fiber, microwave radio or cellular radio. In addition, personal computers (PCs) with the appropriate hardware and software can send files directly to fax machines without printing and scanning. Conversely, documents from an external fax machine can be received by a computer for storage in memory and eventual reproduction on a desktop printer. Internet fax servers have been developed that can send or receive fax documents and transfer them via e-mail between PCs.
The concepts of facsimile transmission were developed in the 19th century using modern telegraph technology. However, widespread use of the method did not take place until the 1980s, when affordable means of adapting digitized information to telephone circuits became common. The long and ultimately fruitful history of fax technology is traced in this section.
Facsimile transmission over wires traces its origins to Alexander Bain, a Scottish mechanic. In 1843, less than seven years after the invention of the telegraph by American Samuel F.B. Morse, Bain received a British patent for “improvements in the production and regulation of electric currents and improvements in clocks and in electric printing and signal telegraphs.” Bain’s fax transmitter was designed to scan a two-dimensional surface (Bain suggested metal type as the surface) using a stylus mounted on a pendulum. The invention was never demonstrated.
Frederick Bakewell, an English physicist, was the first to actually demonstrate facsimile transmission. The demonstration took place in London at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Bakewell’s system differed somewhat from Bain’s in that images were transmitted and received on cylinders – a method widely practiced throughout the 1960s. At the transmitter, the image to be scanned was written with varnish or other non-conductive material on tinfoil, wrapped around the transmitter cylinder and then scanned with a conductive stylus which, like Bain’s stylus, was mounted on a pendulum. The cylinder rotated at a constant speed using a clock mechanism. At the receiver, a similar pendulum-driven pen marked chemically treated paper with an electric current as the receiving cylinder rotated.
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The first commercial facsimile system was introduced between Lyon and Paris, France, in 1863 by Giovanni Caselli, an Italian inventor. The first successful use of optical scanning and transmission of photographs was demonstrated by Arthur Korn of Germany in 1902. Korn’s transmitter used a selenium photocell to record an image wrapped on a transparent glass cylinder; at the receiver, the transmitted image was recorded on photographic film. In 1906, Korn’s equipment was put into regular service for the transmission of newspaper photographs between Munich and Berlin via telegraph circuits.
Further distribution of facsimile transmission had to await the development of improved long-distance telephone service. Between 1920 and 1923, the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) worked on telephone facsimile technology, and in 1924 the telephotograph was used to send photos from political rallies in Cleveland, Ohio, and Chicago to New York City for publication in newspapers. The telephoto camera used transparent cylindrical drums, which were driven by motors that were synchronized between transmitter and receiver. At the transmitter, a positive transparent print was placed on the drum and was scanned by a vacuum tube photoelectric cell. The output from the photocell modulated an 1800-hertz carrier signal, which was then sent over the telephone line. At the receiver, an unexposed negative was gradually illuminated by a narrowly focused beam of light, the intensity of which corresponded to the output of the photoelectric cell in the transmitter. The AT&T fax system was capable of sending a 12.7 x 17.8 cm (5 x 7-inch) photograph in seven minutes at a resolution of 4 lines per mm (100 lines per inch).
Further advances in fax technology occurred in the 1930s and 40s. In 1948, Western Union introduced its desktop fax service, which was based on a small office machine. Around 50,000 desk-fax units were built until the service was discontinued in the 1960s.
Over the years, various manufacturers adopted operating standards that allowed their machines to communicate with each other, but there was no worldwide standard that allowed American machines to connect to European fax machines. In 1974, the International Telegraph and Telephone Consultative Committee (CCITT) released its first worldwide fax standard, known as Group 1 Fax. Group 1 fax machines were capable of sending a one-page document in about six minutes at a resolution of 4 lines per mm using an analog signal format. This standard was followed in 1976 by a CCITT Group 2 facsimile standard, which allowed the transmission of a single-page document in approximately three minutes using an improved modulation scheme.
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Although the Group 2 fax machines proved successful in business applications where electronic transmission of documents containing non-textual information such as drawings, diagrams and signatures was required, the slow transmission speed and cost of the terminals ultimately limited the growth of fax services. In response, the CCITT developed standards for a new class of fax machine, now known as Group 3, which would use digital transmission of images through modems. With the encoding of a scanned image into binary digits, or bits, various image compression methods (also known as source encoding or redundancy reduction) can be used to reduce the number of bits required to represent the original image. By linking a good source code with a
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