Alexander Bain Biography – Fax Machine Inventor

LAST UPDATE: July 10th, 2017

Alexander Bain (October 1811 – 2 January 1877) was famous for being the first to patent the electric clock, as well as installing the railway telegraph lines between Edinburgh and Glasgow. He is also credited with having worked on an experimental facsimile machine between 1843 and 1846.

In 1846 he worked on a chemical mechanical fax type device and was able to reproduce graphic signs in laboratory experiments.

Table of Contents

Alexander Bain, Inventor of the Fax

Early Life

Bain was born in Watten, Caithness, Scotland, the son of a crofter.

From a family of 13, he had six brothers and six sisters, including a twin sister. While he was not proficient in school, he was an apprentice clockmaker in Wick.

Clockmaking Career

Having learned the skill of clockmaking, he moved to Edinburgh and then on to London, working as a journeyman clockmaker.

With his first patent dated 11 January 1841, it describes an electric clock that moves a pendulum through electromagnetic impulses. In other patents, he described how to pull electricity through an “earth batter” using plates of zinc and copper.

Facsimile Machine

Having worked on an experimental facsimile machine between 1843 and 1846, he was able to use a clock to synchronize the movement of two pendulums to be able to scan a message on a line-by-line basis.

To arrange for transmission, he applied metal pins on a cylinder consisting of insulating material. An electric probe transmitted on and off pulses (very much like a telegraph) then scanned the pins.

The receiving station received the pulses and printed the results onto electrochemically sensitive paper that had was impregnated with a chemical solution (similar to his chemical telegraph).

The facsimile machine was able to reproduce poor quality images, however, were not entirely visible at the time because of the lack of quality of the reproduction, mostly from the lack of synchronization between the transmitter and the receiver.

Bain’s patent dated 27 May 1843 was for “improvements in producing and regulating electric currents and improvements in timepieces, and in electric printing, and signal telegraphs” claiming “a copy of any other surface composed of conducting and non-conducting materials can be taken by these means.”

In 1861 the first commercially capable telefax machine, the Pantelegraph, was invented by Italian Giovanni Caselli. He implemented the first commercial telefax service between Lyon and Paris a full 11 years before the introduction of workable telephones.

Chemical Telegraph

Bain was also credited with inventing the patented chemical telegraph, with the purpose of being much faster than the mechanical telegraphs.

The speed improvement was vastly superior to the mechanical version, so much that the hand signaling could not keep up with it, and Bain then had to develop a way of signaling with punched paper tape. A speed of 282 words in 52 seconds between Paris and Lille as clocked, a big improvement over the Morse Telegraph of 40 words per minute.

Although the concept was later used by Wheatsone in his automatic sender, the invention never reached the mainstream, partly from the hostility of Samual Morse, the inventor of the manual telegraph, because the paper tape and alphabet use (morose code) fell under his patent.


Bain was buried in the Auld Aisle Cemetery, Kirkintilloch.

A pub in Wick, The Alexander Bain is named after the inventor, as well as the main BT building in Glasgow (named “Alexander Bain House“).

Additional Resources on Alexander Bain:

Giovanni Caselli Biography SummaryTranslated from Italian by Yahoo Babel Fish (Mentions Alexander Bain)
Patent #US6837 – Improvement in Electro-Chemical Telegraphs
Alexander Bain Biography from the Australian Centre for the Moving Image
Alexander Bain Biography from Electric Scotland
Alexander Bain Biography from Visit Dunkeld
Alexander Bain, a Most Ingenious and Meritorious Inventor – R.W. Burns
A History of Telegraph Companies in Britain – Distant Writing

More Resources on the History of Fax: