Ooma Business Blog

How fax machines work and why they’re still used today

By |Wednesday December 7, 2022

Once upon a time, just about every business office had a fax machine that looked a lot like a wide office phone with a feeding tray. You can probably spy a fax machine collecting dust in the corner of your local package shipping store.

But how exactly how does a fax machine work, what are they used for, and are they becoming extinct? Read on for answers to these questions and more.

What is a fax or facsimile machine?

Half a century ago, fax machines were the only way to send important documents quickly and securely from one location to another. Keep in mind that in 1970 “quick” meant about six minutes to send a one-page letter.

As fax machines improved, so did the transmittal time. This was a boon to businesses that depended on sending or receiving sensitive documents. Fax machines became so popular that “fax” became a verb, as in “Fax me your order and we’ll ship it today.” The sales of stand-alone fax machines peaked in the U.S. in 1997 and three years later in Japan.

How do fax machines work?

Imagine a food manufacturer in Albany, New York, needed to send a recall notice to a grocer in Sacramento, California. Someone in the Albany manufacturer’s office would feed the notice into their fax machine and punch in the phone number of the Sacramento grocer’s fax machine. (Yes, fax machines have their own phone numbers and if you accidentally dialed a fax number you would know by the awful screech.)

The Albany fax machine would scan the notice and convert it to electrical signals that traveled across analog telephone lines to the Sacramento fax machine. Those signals would be decoded to form an image of the notice, which was then printed by the receiving fax machine. Depending on the quality of the fax machines involved, the document arriving in Sacramento would look similar to the Albany original. Well, maybe not entirely similar, but there was a good chance it was legible.

Fax broadcasting software evolved to make it possible to send faxes to not just one recipient, but thousands of recipients simultaneously. As you can imagine, important business documents got lost among the scores of unsolicited advertisements that choked fax machines. So in 2005, the U.S. government passed the Junk Fax Prevention Act to prevent fax technology abuse. That congressional act alone probably saved a forest of trees.

What are fax machines used for?

Over the decades, fax machines have been used for many purposes. Think about a doctor sending a prescription to a pharmacy on behalf of a patient who lost his luggage while traveling, a real estate agent in Florida requesting signatures from buyers in Michigan, or a government agency verifying service dates for a soldier seeking employment. Way before DoorDash and Grubhub, some restaurants would let you fax them your order so it would be ready to pick up when you arrived.

Are fax machines going extinct?

No, they haven’t gone the way of the dinosaur just yet. In fact, you can still buy a fax machine at most office supply stores. But why on earth would you want to when there are digital options available?

Do you have an old fax machine you can’t bear to get rid of? You don’t have to. You can still operate a regular old fax machine on an internet phone system by using an adapter.

Why do some businesses continue to use traditional fax machines?

Contrary to popular belief, not all businesses clinging to their fax machines are simply afraid of change. Some, like the legal, health care and financial industries, are worried about violating rigid privacy regulations. Others, like law enforcement agencies and hospital medical records departments need to quickly access paper records that have never been digitized. And there are some businesses that have their fax numbers printed on old business cards, signage, stickers and invoices and are concerned they may miss an order from an old customer.

Do you need a fax machine to receive a fax?

Years ago, you had to have a fax machine to receive a fax, but not anymore. Today’s technology makes it possible to receive a fax as a digital document or attachment in your email. You’ll need a dedicated fax app, an email account that supports digital faxing, or a VoIP business phone plan like Ooma Office that offers virtual faxing. In case you’re wondering, a digital fax is the same as an eFax, online fax and virtual fax.

The beauty of a digital fax is that they don’t require the extra expense of special fax paper or toner. And digital fax transmissions are regarded as being just as secure as faxes sent over a fax machine. Arguably more secure since they aren’t waiting for someone to physically pick them up from a machine.

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