Alexander Bain

Alexander Bain

Inventor - (1811 - 1877)

Imagine how pissed off you would be if you invented a device that came to be used in just about every office in the world and yet you didn't make a penny out of it.

Well, that's what happened to Alexander Bain, a Caithness born Scotsman. The device he invented was the fax machine and the year was 1843. Unfortunately fax machines didn't become popular for another one hundred and thirty years or so, by which time Mr Bain had been dead for the best part of a century. Even worse, he died in relative poverty and obscurity.

Alexander Bain was born in 1811 near Wick in the far north of Scotland. One of thirteen children, his father was a crofter and life must have been harsh and spartan. He apprenticed as a watchmaker and after a spell in Edinburgh, moved to Clerkenwell in London which at the time was the centre of excellence for watches and clocks in the UK.

In an incredibly fertile six year period between 1841 and 1847, Bain filed patents for an electric clock, control systems for railway engines, a device for measuring the speed of ships, a device for measuring the temperature in the holds of ships (the forerunner of today's fire alarm), automated music machines and the chemical telegraph. The chemical telegraph would be better known today as the fax machine.

Bain's fax machine used a detector to scan an image. As the detector passed over the page it emitted an electrical signal which registered at one strength as it passed through the image's black points and at a different strength as it passed over white points. The two distinct signals were transmitted over telegraph wires to a receiver which applied them to chemically treated paper to reproduce the image.

Using Bain's method, the amount of information that could be transmitted increased from forty words a minute using traditional telegraphic systems, to 325 words a minute using the chemical telegraph. In one American demonstration, it achieved speeds of over one thousand words a minute, an enormous leap.

In 1856, an Italian, Giovanni Caselli, built a version of Bain's chemical telegraph which he called a pantelegraph. It's usefulness was that it transmitted over longer distances. It wasn't what you would call a desktop device - it employed synchronising pendulums that stood some eight feet high. But it could send faxes as far as seventy miles.

Bain became a wealthy man. By all accounts though, however clever he was, he wasn't wise with money. He went to America, made some poor investments and engaged in expensive litigation against Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph who had blocked adoption of Bain's invention in the USA, claiming patent infringement.

He returned to London a poor man. He was granted a civil list pension of £60 a year, a sum that rescued him from penury. In his latter years, amidst failing health he returned to Glasgow. He died in the Home for Incurables in Kirkintilloch in 1877.

Had he been born in the latter half of the twentieth century, who knows, he may have been Scotland's Bill Gates.

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