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The First Fax Machine & Jimmy Stewart

1 September 2014

I remember watching a classic movie with Jimmy Stewart; it was a movie from the late forties. Sadly I can’t remember the name. But in the movie he needed a document faxed to him,or the man he was defending, was going to fry in the electric chair. Well, they did not use the term “fax” but it was the same function. And I remember thinking how was that possible? Wasn’t the Fax Machine widely used in the 70’s and invented shortly before that?


Jimmy Stewart

Jimmy Stewart



I never really researched it any further until now. But still that movie just left me perplexed for a while. Why do we always think history begins when we are born? 😀


The story goes that a priest in Florence, who was too radical for the church, and because of his radical views was forced to live in exile is responsible for the invention of the fax machine in the year 1857!
Giovanni Caselli appeared to be strange fellow to his neighbors, always tinkering with things, and his home was full of junk. The neighbors thought, they had a loony living amongst them for sure. :p


Giovanni Caselli

Giovanni Caselli


Not only was Caselli a priest, but he was also a scientist and the telegraph was the hot technology of the day. Caselli wondered if it were possible to send pictures over the telegraph wires. The world thought he truly had lost his mind, but that did not stop Caselli from trying to do what he thought was possible.


The "Pantelegraph."

The “Pantelegraph.”


In 1857 and over the course of six years Casselli perfected what he called the “Pantelegraph.” It was the very first fax machine for the world! It stood six feet tall and made up of swinging pendulums, batteries and wires.


The way the Pantelegraph worked was by passing an electrical current through an image, the signal was sent to a receiver that translated it onto a piece of treated paper.


The Emperor of France, Napoleon III was so awe-struck with this invention that he authorized its use on French telegraph lines. By 1868 the Pantelegraph was transmitting 110 faxes per hour! But the world was not quite ready for such an invention. It was seen as a novelty, not really practical, or a necessity.


Then came the invasion of France by the Prussians in 1870 and the service was interrupted, and never to resume again. It would be another hundred years before the modern fax machine became ubiquitous.



So back to my movie with Jimmy Stewart, although the fax machine was not widely used until the 70’s, there were other fax machines that followed Caselli’s. It turns out that RCA came up with “Radio Facsimile,” in the 1924; this one is actually the forerunner of the modern day fax machines we use today. So, now I understand how Jimmy was able to get that fax in that movie in the 40’s.

So when your fax machine rings and you see that image faxed from a remote part of the world to your desk, thank Giovanni Caselli who in 1857 never stopped trying until he got it to work. We can learn a lot from a person like that.

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2 Comments to “The First Fax Machine & Jimmy Stewart”

  1. The Jimmy (James in billing) movie might have been “Call Northside 777” also starring Richard Conte, the man to be executed, and Lee J Cobb. I watched it on Netflix a couple weeks ago.

  2. Thank you CNC, I think you are right on the title! As a classic movie buff myself, I can’t believe, I was unable to remember the title. 😀

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