The Purpose of the Fax Machine

By Ann Deiterich

Updated September 26, 2017

The fax machine gained popularity in the late 1980s because of its ability to transmit hard-copy documents over telephone lines almost immediately. In most circumstances, faxed document with a signature is the legal equivalent of an original of the signed document.

What It Is

The fax machine is a device that allows for the transmission of hard-copy documents from one point to another over a communication line. These documents include things like reports, illustrations, written letters and photographs.

How It Works

The transmitting fax first scans the document, turning it into a series of electrical impulses. This information is then sent via phone, cable or other communications system to a receiving fax machine, which decodes the information and prints it out.


The first fax patent was awarded in Britain in 1843 to Alexander Bain for his device that used two pens, two pendulums and wire that could image on an electrically conductive surface. The technology evolved for more than a century, until the late 1980s, when the number of fax machines jumped from 300,000 to four million.

Business Uses

Smaller, faster fax machines became as popular in businesses as their copy machines. Prior to extensive email use, fax machines where the best way to transmit information in seconds or minutes, eliminating the need for overnight or courier services.

Internet Faxing

There are now many services that allow you to send faxes via the Internet. Documents are forwarded to your email rather than a fax machine. Many businesses have eliminated their fax machines and are using the Internet for faxing.