Inventor of the Fax Machine Turns 100 | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 19.12.2001
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Inventor of the Fax Machine Turns 100

"Fax it to me" is one of the most common phrases in the business world, thanks to the inventor of the fax machine, who turned 100 years old on Wednesday.


Rudolf Hell gave us the blessing of instant paper communication, the curse of paper jams

“Beep, scratch, bloop” – anyone who's ever called a fax number instead of a phone number knows these annoying sounds.

The man responsible for these sounds is Rudolf Hell, who invented the precursor of the fax machine in 1929.

Born in Bavaria

Hell was born in a small Bavarian village on December 19, 1901. In school, he excelled in physics and math. Electronic engineering, a relatively new and expanding scientific field, became the focus of his work in university.

As a student in the 1920s, Hell came up with the idea of breaking up written characters and pictures into dots and lines. This simplified data, he hoped, could then be transmitted electronically.

In 1927, Hell received a doctorate for inventing a novel flightpath-finder for pilots. It helped pilots locate the direction of earthbound transmitters, making it possible for them to reach destinations safely even in bad weather or darkness.

The device, a smart but crude invention compared to his later work, was first step toward the auto-pilot technology used universally today.

The first fax

Two years later, in 1929, Hell emerged from his lab with a "device for the electronic transmission of written characters", called the 'Hellschreiber'. Today we know it as the fax machine.

The Hellschreiber broke down graphic information into thousands of tiny individual dots. This information was then transmitted and reassembled at the receiving end.

Hell's new invention was immediately put to commercial use. News could now be spread around the globe in a matter of seconds. The commercial success of this invention enabled Hell to found his own company in Berlin.

Profitable stuff, but making money was never of primary importance to Mr Hell, the scientist. He was driven by a fascination for technology. "I was always interested in progress and making things work," he once said.

The Edison of printing

In the 1950s, Hell invented an electronically controlled engraver – a machine which simplified photo-publishing for newspapers. A decade later, he came up with the idea of the 'cholograph' - an early version of the color scanner.

In 1964 he unveiled the 'Digiset', the first digital typesetter. With the help of a computer system, primitive by today’s standards but cutting-edge at the time, this program broke down figures and letters into digital elements.

The Digiset has been called the grandfather of all page layout programs, because it enabled printers to typeset large volumes within a few minutes.

Secluded life

Today, Rudolf Hell lives a reclusive life in the northern German city of Kiel, where as an honorary citizen the city threw him a public birthday bash Wednesday.

An inventive mind never fully retires, yet Hell has slowed down a bit because of weaker health in his advanced age.

But when he gets out, he can now do it in high style as one of the few living men who can cruising down a street named after himself, Kiel’s birthday present to him on the centennial anniversary of his birth.