TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Re: Western Union Desk-Fax -- Discontinued?

Re: Western Union Desk-Fax -- Discontinued? (
31 Jan 2007 20:42:35 -0800

On Jan 30, 3:21 pm, wrote:

> In the late 1940s Western Union introduced a small desk top sized
> facsimile machine which was a major innovation for its day. Before
> that, fax machines were huge.

> The goal was to replace telegraph messengers who were becoming quite
> expensive and provide a faster service -- desk to desk. Also, these
> machines were cheaper than a Teletype. The Western Union Tech Review
> (on this website) has articles on the details of transmission. A lot
> of experimentation went into all facets of transmission issues to
> maximize clarity and minimize errors. I believe the document size was
> rather small, about 4x6 inches.

> I am not sure if the fax signal was analog, varying as the reading eye
> moved across the line, or digital, with the line divided into tiny
> segments. A digital signal could be carried on low speed telegraph
> lines and converted to paper tape but would be pretty slow. I also
> don't know how the messages were routed -- did the fax print out at a WU
> switching center, read by a human, and re-transmitted to the
> destination? If so, was the fax resent, which would mean a very
> coarse final result, or was the image stored on paper tape (as other
> telegraph messages were) and resent that way?

> (Western Union also handled larger size facsimile transmission, such
> as weather maps for the US weather bureau and private line
> transmissions, but that is separate*).

> Anyway, in 1962 there were 38,000 Desk Fax terminals in operation.
> Obviously it was popular.

> As voice-telephone line fax machines and cheaper long distance rates
> came out the need for Desk Fax declined. At some point Western Union
> had to pull the plug on the service. I tried searching for a
> terminate date, but couldn't find any. Would anyone know when WU
> discontinued this particular service and how many terminals remained
> in use? Would anyone know any other details about the service?

> *In 1962 W.U. had a "Public Wirefax" service, which cost $4.00 for a
> coast-to-coast 8x11" page transmission, additional pages at 65 cents.

I remember c. 1965 when I worked at Ideal Toys then at 200 Fifth
Avenue NYC NY we had one by the plug phone switchboard. The operator
would put our original on a drum with a band holding the original for

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: Did they have a separate dedicated
phone line to the 'fax machine'? I know many companies did not have a
dedicated phone line; either someone called in advance and advised the
company phone operator that a fax would be coming through, or in many\
cases, when the phone operator answered and heard 'those squealing and
squeeky noises' it meant for her to transfer the call into the fax
machine line. And yes, about forty years ago I had one of those
things with the big round drum which would roll back and forth across
the paper. PAT]

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