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Hey, Matt:

I seem to gravitate to people who think they know everything, and I usually buy what they say. But here's one I finally have to ask about. A friend who's right about a lot of stuff swears the fax machine was invented before the telephone, and it was invented by a Scottish shepherd. He said he heard the story on the radio. How is it possible for the fax to be older than the telephone, and what would a shepherd need with one?

-- Just the Fax, San Diego

I think your pal has the fax machine confused with golf. Golf was invented by a Scottish shepherd. A Scottish shepherd with a very high threshold for boredom. The fax machine was invented by a Scottish clockmaker. He grew up on a farm, so maybe he shoved a few sheep around occasionally, but it wasn't his life's work. When Alexander Bain dreamed up his image-facsimile transmitter (patented in 1842, about 30 years before the telephone), we could already transmit code over wire by telegraphy. He dreamed up a technique to adapt the on-off telegraphic signal to reproduce a document. A scanning pen passed over a page from left to right and top to bottom in a series of fine lines. When the pen detected an image, it would interrupt an electrical signal, and the pen at the other end of the wire would be activated and make a mark on special chemically treated paper. When both pens were perfectly synchronous, the mark produced would be in the same place and of the same length as on the original. Unfortunately, it was faster to send text by Morse code, and nobody seemed much interested in transmitting anything else, so Bain put his proto-fax on a shelf. But eventually this invention and several others were appropriated by men with a keener sense of marketing, and Bain died obscure and penniless. Maybe he shoulda stuck with clocks.

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