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Feb 9, 2004

The Man Who Invented the Fax Machine

Emily Aronson, in the Portsmouth Hearld (NH) (Feb. 8, 2004):

Shintaro"Sam" Asano says he owes it all to America.

Although America was not the country of his birth, Asano speaks of it as a place of rebirth, where his ideas were fostered and his free thinking encouraged.

If it were not for this country, Asano's inventions like the first portable fax machine or a wireless Internet system recently donated to the New Castle Public Library might never have been made.

Asano, who has lived in New Castle since 1998, was born in 1935 in Tokyo, and said his young life was defined by the Japanese loss of World War II.

"A nation is like a man and if it gets beat in battle, its self-esteem suffers," said Asano of what he calls Japan's"inferiority complex" after losing the first war in its 2,600-year history.

Asano remembers at age 9 realizing Japan would probably not win the war.

"I saw a huge difference in technology between the U.S. and Japan, and it was very clear to me toward the end of the war that Japan was going to lose," Asano said.

The main difference in technology Asano discovered was the use of radar by the American military. He said he believes not having radar capabilities helped cause Japan's defeat in the Battle of Midway, which was a major turning point in the war.

But Asano said through reading radio engineering books he discovered the original concept of radar was discovered almost simultaneously by American, British and Japanese scientists, but the Americans were the only ones to turn the idea into a practical product.

"We weren't stupid; it was just something Americans had made faster," Asano said.

From this point on, he said it"became his obsession" to come to the United States and"find out what makes America better."

So in 1959, thanks to the help of an American on the Fulbright Committee in Japan, Asano came to Cambridge, Mass., as a Fulbright Scholar at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Asano said living in America in the early 1960s was a"fabulous experience." As a graduate student at MIT, he was given a small stipend, a lab, and two years to complete his thesis on two-axis color televisions, which are based on using white and red light.

"I was immersed in a free-thinking atmosphere," Asano said of his professors' encouragement to take risks and try new theories.

Asano said he believes the bureaucracy and emphasis on seniority in Japanese culture inhibits individualism and alternative thinking.

"The problem with Japan is that they don't even fail because they don't try," Asano said."I could see why good ideas get built very quickly (in America)."

However, Asano did remember how he was warned Japanese people might not be welcome in all parts of the country.

"Before coming to America, we were told not to cross the Mason-Dixon Line," he said.

Asano graduated from MIT and found a job with NASA as a way to stay in the country. Ironically, it was his lack of citizenship while working at NASA that helped him come up with the idea for his first major invention.

As a project engineer, Asano was asked to develop a satellite camera for rockets. Since he was not an American citizen, he did not have clearance to be in the launch site and had to explain how to use the satellite to a technician over the phone.

"I had a hard time understanding the technician's Southern accent," Asano remembered,"So the idea came to me if I could send pictures through the telephone."

And from there the modern-day fax machine was born.

However, in 1967, Asano said American businesses were not ready for the fax machine, but companies in his native country were. Asano explained Japanese typewriters were very bulky because there are 2,500 standard characters in the written language and a machine like the fax in which a person could handwrite a message and copy it easily was perfect for Japan.

Asano then sold his patent to Nippon Telephone & Telegraph in Tokyo, and the rest is history.

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