Looking backwards at the future of the fax
Jason Kottke has been trawling through the newly accessible archives of the New York Times. One of the things he’s found, in the NYT in 1907, is the first reference to something which became the fax, which finally came into mass use in the 1980s.
The first paragraph reads, “Professor Korn has Triumphantly Succeeded in Transmitting Portraits over Long Distances by Wire Experiments in France and Germany”.
The rhetoric which goes with it will seem strangely familiar to anyone who remembers the 90s hype about the web and cyberspace (remember, this is 1907).
NOT long ago a popular writer on electricity made this startling prediction of coming wonders: “Lovers conversing at a great distance will behold each other as in the flesh. Doctors will examine patients’ tongues in another city, and the poor will enjoy visual trips wherever their fancy inclines… This is no dream. [Dr Korn] assures us that “television”, or seeing by telegraph, is merely a question of a year or two with certain improvements in apparatus.
A couple of points. The first is that it reminds me that in the early days of the phone 0ne of the competing “frames” about how it would evolve was that it would be used as a local broadcast distribution sytem for news and music. Before the Great War there were successful services in Budapest, London, and Paris. (There’s a contemporary article here, from 1901).
The second point is that despite the hype of the article, the 19th and early 20th centuries were very familiar with technologies which reduced distance, in particular because of the telegraph. Tom Standage explored this in his book The Victorian Internet.
Which brings to mind David Egerton’s point, in his book The Shock of the Old, that one of the problems with the history of technology is that it is written as a history of innovation, when it should be read as a history of use.
More on the NYT archive, including the first reference to the world wide web and the first restaurant reviewer (1859) at this Kottke.org post.