Archive for September, 2014

For the Record

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

I was asked to contribute a photograph from my father’s archives to an article by Professor Jonathan Coopersmith of Texas A&M University on the history of facsimile communications to be published by IEEE.  IEEE had found the photo in an article about my father’s work for Western Union on the Desk-Fax. I had also mused here  about what may have been the first televised new technology product introduction on KTLA in 1949.

I just got word from IEEE that

Jonathan Coopersmith’s article on facsimile is now online, with one of the photos from your father’s collection shown in Figure 8. The caption credit links to your wonderfully informative webpage on your father’s work in this field.  Proceedings of the IEEE is preparing its version, which I believe will issue in December or January.

I would call attention to some statements by Dr. Coopersmith that appear to misrepresent the timing and commercialization plans of the Western Union Deskfax relative to others’ work.

Dr. Coopersmith writes in various places:

Times Facsimile Inc. and Radio Inventions Inc. after World War II; to Western Union and Xerox in the 1950s-60s,

Western Union and Xerox in the 1950s-60s

Until the 1950s, individuals were the key developers and rivals.

Coopersmith’s timeline is misleading, as DeskFax was developed after World War II and commercially introduced before the 50s.  As is shown in my article Desk-Fax: the first commerical facsimile, Deskfax was introduced on radio and television in 1949, and among its innovations might very well be the use of television to launch a technology product.  Readers might be interested in the original script from the broadcast on KTLA.

Later, Dr. Coopersmith writes:

At the same time, faxing entered many businesses in the 1950s via Western Union’s Desk-Fax, which sent telegrams to central offices.

This suggests that Desk-Fax was a store and forward system.  My understanding from discussions with my father about his work on DeskFax was that the Central Office was used to connect sending and receiving fax machines to facilitate their synchronization.  This would be closer to traditional telephone switching networks, so the assertion that Desk-Fax was like a telegram is misleading.

One thing that Coopersmith does not touch on is the transmission medium.  I think this is of far more relevance to the ultimate commercial success of telephonic fax transmission.  Under the Kingsbury Commitment, AT&T divested its WUTEL control, and focused on voice services, leaving messaging (telegram and teletype) to WUTEL, which maintained its own wireline infrastructure in parallel with the Bell System.  It was the invention of modulation techniques that could be acoustically coupled for transmission over the voice network that permitted widespread adoption of facsimile.

It seems unlikely that WUTEL would have raised the capital to fully duplicate the Bell System (at least to all business offices), unless it could have also delivered voice service.  According to Xerox introduced its Magnafax telecopier, which used the telephone network, in 1966. This was clearly why WUTEL terminated the DeskFax: it could not compete with the broader reach of the voice telephone system — an early example of the network effect.

In any event, lumping WUTEL and Xerox together, as Coopersmith does, is a re-writing of history.

Finally, Coopersmith writes

Ironically Western Union viewed Desk-Fax as a cost-cutting extension of the telegraph

According to my father, it was most definitely not viewed that way.  Instead it was viewed as a replacement for the teletype, as the economic incentive was that teletype operators were paid more than regular typists.  But speed and security were also implicit messages in the television script.  And undoubtedly, the proprietary Teledeltos paper was viewed as a source of profits, akin to giving away razors to sell razor blades.

For the Record.