IN the middle of the last century, a Scotsman invented the world's first fax machine. No one paid much attention.
In the 1920s, AT&T built its own version and started delivering news photos. Transmission time was slow - too slow and expensive for any but the most valuable documents.
All that changed as fax technology improved in the 1980s. The overlooked invention of a century and a half ago has become a popular business tool.
If fax innovation seems slow and tortoise-like, meet the hare. Computers are transforming faxes. They have pushed the technology farther in seven years than in all previous 150. They're changing the way we think about faxing.
Take Cardiff Software's TeleForm. This four-month-old $1,000 innovation turns fax machines into data-collection devices. Teleform lets a computer user design a form and fax it to hundreds of people. They fill in the blanks and fax the form back. Then, the computer tallies the answers automatically.
That's a dramatic savings for people. A salesman can fax his orders directly to the company computer. (Ricoh did that and cut processing time from more than a day to 20 minutes.) A major heavy-equipment manufacturer uses TeleForm to conduct worldwide opinion surveys. One national airline uses it to process employee time cards.
The technology isn't perfect yet. The computer reads checked boxes a lot better than hand-printed letters. Accuracy runs from 85 percent to virtually 100 percent, the Solana Beach, Calif., company says.
Xerox Corporation, meanwhile, has invented something called PaperWorks. The $250 software package allows people to send commands to their computer. Check a few boxes on a special form, fax it, and your computer will fax back the document you want. Or it can send it to someone else. Or it can store it electronically for later retrieval.
Neat stuff? Yes, but it's deeper than that.
Faxing is on the verge of becoming something more than US Mail at time-warp speed. It's really a network - part paper, part electronic. It's easier to use than any other electronic network. (Anyone can fax a piece of paper.) It's also more pervasive. There are some 26 million fax machines in the United States. Prodigy, a popular electronic network, celebrated when its membership recently topped 1 million.
I've spent the last three weeks experimenting with a high-speed data modem and fax: Intel's $549 SatisFAXtion Modem/400. The instructions could have been clearer. It took me two installations to get the software running right, and a couple of days to figure out the optimal configuration. Since that time, though, I've been sending and receiving computer faxes - with a bonus.
Computers store faxes as pictures. They can't search for words because they don't know whether the fax contains them. New software promises to change that. Optical character recognition (OCR) turns pictures of words into words the computer understands. Thus, computer faxing is starting to allow a seamless transfer: paper fax to electronic document and electronic document to paper fax.
Intel's OCR software, FAXability, did a fair job of deciphering my test documents. It made few mistakes when faxes were sent in "fine" mode; it spewed gibberish with faxes in "standard" mode. Unfortunately, some 95 percent of all faxes are sent in standard mode.
Caere Corporation is coming out with a new product, FaxMaster, that it claims will read standard-mode faxes. Caere's interface is more straightforward than Intel's. And FaxMaster offers some nifty features, like faxing directly from a computer scanner and automatic compression of received faxes.
Compression is vital. Fax images take up gobs of disk space until they're compressed or "read" into the computer using OCR.
The point is that computers are improving an old-line, paper-based technology just as fast as they're creating new electronic technologies. That's hopeful. The computer revolution isn't replacing paper; it's incorporating it.
Send your comments on this column to CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A)