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The urge to move documents as fast as possible has always been a national pre-occupation, because it has always been a necessity. Fax and Federal Express are just the latest among many innovations for getting the message across.
September/october 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 6
But as the 1950s ended, there was renewed interest, some of it in the United States but more in Japan, where having an alphabet containing thousands of characters gave the nation’s innovators considerable incentive to find ways of transmitting the written word more efficiently. By the 1960s they had reached a stage where documents sent over regular telephone lines were reasonably legible and the speed of transmission was steadily improving. Finally, by the early 1980s, Japanese manufacturers had developed machines cheap and reliable enough for the mass market.
There are now 1,200,000 Americans who own personal fax machines and more than 10,000,000 who use them regularly. For the user the cost is essentially the price of the phone call, and the transmission time ranges from twelve to thirty seconds. A letter moves from New York to San Francisco—or across the world—nearly instantaneously.
Every time a faster way to move documents emerged, it rapidly became a necessity.
Indeed, there seems no end to the convenience of fax. The latest wrinkle is the battery-powered mobile fax. And this is not just a matter of being able to fax from a car, using a cellular phone. A recent Washington Post story cites the case of one Keith Gronsbell, who successfully faxed a message from a plane flying at twenty thousand feet. A recent Mount Everest expedition faxed back daily progress reports, using a satellite link. The question now is not where one can fax but where one can hide from instantaneous document communication. Already there are those who complain of piles of waxy junk mail and who guard their machines’ telephone numbers like a wartime code.
Where have a century and a half of effort, adventure, and ingenuity in delivering documents in the shortest possible time brought us? Instantaneous visual and oral communication—as well as the incredible speed of air transportation —is now a part of our birthright, one we all take for granted. Indeed, every time a faster way of moving a document has become available it has rapidly become a necessity, and we have managed to find a pressing need for something even faster. If one thing has remained constant, it is our unremitting itch of dissatisfaction with the current technology. And there is one other thing: the impossibility of predicting the next breakthrough to which that itch will drive us.