Unlike the typewriter, the lowly fax machine never pulled itself out of the hive-like existence of utilitarian office machines and into literary celebrity. With their bland, functional styling, fax machines will not have their impending obsolescence capped with museum exhibitions. And as little more than conduits for wonky, unglamorous communiqués, fax machines rarely conduct a piece of text that inspires people to savor, and want to save, the words, as with personal letters. While we often feature historic correspondence of a time before email from one of our favorite sites, Letters of Note, the risible, profound, and shocking sentiments expressed by famous figures when they think that no one’s looking rarely make it into office memoranda.
However, inspired by our recent post on Mark Twain’s typewriter, a reader alerted us to a Letters of Note subgenre of sorts, “faxes of note.” These oddball messages defy the workaday conventions of the fax. Take, for example, the fax above sent by Iggy Pop to Plazm magazine writer Joshua Berger as an addendum to a 1995 interview. Scrawled with his fevered thoughts, on Delta Airlines stationary, Pop’s fax amounts to what Letters of Note calls “a rant so rich with quotable lines, it's amazing he was able to contain it all on a single sheet.”
You can click here for a full transcript of Iggy’s take on American cultural decadence, but here are just a few highlights from his faxed get-off-my-lawn moment: Pop---on tour in Europe at the time---calls his home country “a nation of midgets,” and decries the ‘90s rehash of ‘60s and ’70s music (“none of them have fuck-all to say”); he rails against the Calvin Klein aesthetic, adding “our gods are assholes” (maybe some professional jealousy here---Pop more or less invented heroin chic). Finally, he signs off with some cranky onomatopoeia: “i hate it all. heavy metal. hollywood movies. SCHPOLOOGY! YeHEHCHH!” This is archival-worthy vitriol, for sure.
Another fax of note uses the medium to opposite effect; Stephen Hawking’s fax (above), also from 1995, responds to a request from erstwhile British music and fashion magazine The Face for the formula for time travel. Hawking replies, via his personal assistant, “Thank you for your recent fax. I do not have any equations for time travel. If I had, I would win the National Lottery every week.” Unlike Iggy’s explosion of handwritten bile, Hawking’s missive retains all the formal properties of the fax---appropriate institutional letterhead, “from” and “to” lines, etc---which makes his pithy retort all the more incongruous.
While the 1980s and '90s were boom times for fax transmissions, the machine actually dates back to 1843, when it was patented by Scottish inventor Alexander Bain. As early as 1902, fax technology allowed photographs to be sent over telephone lines. And yes, as every frustrated administrative assistant knows too well, the humble fax machine is still in use in offices around the world, transmitting blearingly boring messages, as well as the occasional flash of individuality. For more on famous faxes, see this helpful infographic from our reader.
Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness