When the future was bright for the fax machine

Fax machines were getting smaller in 1988, and that had manufacturers looking to new markets beyond the office.

'What's your fax number?' was a frequently asked question in the business community

A fax machine in every office

36 years ago
Duration 3:46
A new generation of small fax machines has the industry eyeing new markets in 1988.

Fax machines were getting smaller in 1988, and they were no longer "relegated to the back rooms" of the office.

As Robert Scully, host of CBC's Venture, explained on Jan. 17, 1988, the fax machine had once been "cumbersome and expensive." But now it was "faster, cheaper and more portable."

"'What's your fax number?' has become one of the most frequently asked questions in the business community," he said. 

Reporter Fred Langan visited some workplaces where the fax had become essential.

'High-tech gadget'

"We can get an answer within minutes of talking to somebody on the telephone," said Chris Marshall of Canadian Airlines, which had offices in different time zones. (Venture/CBC Archives)

"Last year, thousands of Canadian companies chose this: the fax machine," said Langan, as a desktop model was seen and heard. "The gizmo that lets you send a letter over the phone line."

Rene Schoefflen, who ran a small design firm, was among the business owners who had made the fax "one of the hottest-selling high-tech gadgets in North America," as Langan put it.

"I cannot see life without fax any more," said Schoefflen, who used his machine to send and receive advertising copy. For him, it was as essential as a "copying machine" or "the telephone itself."

And the device, which combined the technologies of the telephone, copying machine, and computer, threatened to displace older methods of communication.

An estimated 65,000 machines were going to be sold in Canada that year, said the reporter.

"Fax is already a threat to the post office, as companies send letters over the phone lines," said Langan. "It's also taking business from couriers."

Downsides: privacy issues, junk faxes

Fax machines needed not be tethered to the office anymore. They could go in the car, too. (Venture/CBC Archives)

But if the post office was going to lose to the intruder, the telephone companies were in the opposite position.

"But the big winners in the fax wars are the phone companies, who are making money on all the long-distance fax calls," said Langan. 

Even the problem of privacy had been addressed: some machines could be programmed to print out a fax only if a "secret code" was punched in first.

"Then there's junk fax," said the reporter, bringing up another downside of the machine. "Which, like junk mail, comes in whether you want it or not."

CBC reporter Fred Langan shows the next frontier for the fax machine: the home. (Venture/CBC Archives)

Schoefflen described mornings of arriving at work to see what his fax machine had been up to while he was away. 

"You have a pile of rolls on the floor, from overnight," he said. "Guys from Vancouver sent you stuff, Switzerland had come in with a new layout."

Already there were 80,000 fax machines in use in Canada, said Langan. And their manufacturers were looking beyond the office.

While users could "hook up" the fax to the car phone, the future was going to be in the home market, said Langan.

"In Japan, where these are very popular, people use them for sending everything from notes to neighbours to wedding invitations."

Newer fax machines were small enough to take in the car or use at home. (Venture/CBC Archives)

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