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Grace Notes


May 2008


W hen did you en- counter your first fax machine? It was most likely within the last 50 years. Can you remember standing over the clat- tering machine watching the print head slide to and fro over the pa- per as the image grew before your very eyes? Did you know that the fax machine has been around over 150 years and has a Scottish Connection? Alexander Bain, an Edinburgh clockmaker, obtained the first patent for a fax machine in 1843. [Editor’s note: Nope, that’s not a typo – the date is 1843, before the American Civil war.] Bain was born in Watten, Caithness, Scotland, into a crofter’s family of 13 children. He wasn’t much of a scholar, so his father apprenticed him to a clockmaker in Wick. Upon the completion of his training, he moved to Edinburgh and then to London. There, he frequently at- tended lectures at many institutions, it being the height of the Industrial Revolution. He set up his own shop in 1837, but early days were not prosperous. In an attempt to raise money to com- mercially develop his inventions, among them the first electric clock, he demonstrated them to Sir Charles Wheatstone, the editor of Mechan- ics Magazine, who told Bain to give up since “There’s no future in them.” However, three months later Wheatstone presented an electric clock to the Royal Society as his own invention. Unfortunately for him, Bain had already applied for a patent for that design. Wheat- stone impeded Bain’s patent, but eventually Parliament compelled Wheatstone’s company to pay Bain

£10,000 and hire him as a manager. Wheat- stone resigned. Bain’s inspiration for the fax was the back- and-forth motion of a clock pendulum in which he saw the potential of convert- ing an image to a string of images by a line-by-line scan- ning mechanism. Bain also invented a chemical tele- graph which could transmit 282 words in 52 seconds compared to Morse’s machine which yielded only 40 words per minute. Morse himself was angered by Bain’s achievement and took some tentative steps toward blocking Bain’s obtaining American patents, but Bain had learned well from Wheatstone’s treachery, and Morse soon desisted. Bain returned to Edinburgh for the latter years of his life. He is buried in Kirkintilloch.Apub in Wick, close to where Alexander Bain served his

apprenticeship, is now named after the inventor. Also, as a tribute to his inventions, the main British Tele- phone building in Glasgow is named Alexander Bain House. So next time you send or get a fax, or even watch a clock pendulum, think of Alexander Bain’s fax machine and its Scottish Connection.

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    From various wikipedia.com ar-




Grace Notes is the official publication of the Memphis Scottish Society, Inc. It is published monthly. Like the Society itself, the credo of Grace Notes is “to foster education and promote understanding of things Scottish.”

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