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Alexander Bain

Alexander Bain

Alexander Bain was born in Watten, Scotland. A Scottish clock and instrument maker, he patented the basics of facsimile, and his claim to priority is rarely disputed. He was an all-round inventor and technician who later installed the first telegraph lines alongside the railway between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

You've got to be careful when reading history because there are actually two different devices known as facsimile. The one we wouldn't recognise today employed the minds of hundreds of inventors in the early days of telegraphy, and was finally developed to a useful stage by Elisha Gray, Bell's great rival in the telephone business.

This was the TeleAutograph introduced at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. It transmitted both the x and y parameters of a stylus movement (electric pen) down different wires, and therefore transmitted the motions of handwriting over distance.

The stylus movements were reproduced at the far end by an ink-trace on paper-tape moved by clockwork. Later developments of the TeleAutograph were popular with banks until quite recently for transferring signatures, and they were also used by the deaf.

In the early days of electronic communications developments, the idea of handwriting transfer was seen as potentially important, and certainly more socially-acceptable than the telephone. Many refined people wouldn't use early telephones because they had to shout to be understood.

However anyone could use the TeleAutograph, and the bonus was that it left a personal message if the receiver wasn't at home. E-mail has some of these same socially-important characteristics.

The fax that we know today depended on a totally different approach; this is more akin to television scanning. In fact, Alexander Bain is rightly credited with inventing both the fax and also the television approach to scanning images progressively.

Bain died in Kirkintilloch and is buried in the Old Aisle cemetery.

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