Creative Uses of the Fax Machine: From Iggy Pop’s Bile to Stephen Hawking’s Snark

Iggy fax

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.

Hawking fax

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.

H/T @jaclynlambert

Relat­ed Con­tent:

From The Stooges to Iggy Pop: 1986 Doc­u­men­tary Charts the Rise of Punk’s God­fa­ther

Sev­en Ques­tions for Stephen Hawk­ing: What Would He Ask Albert Ein­stein & More

David Bowie’s First Amer­i­can Fan Let­ter And His Evolv­ing Views of the U.S. (1967–1997)

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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