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Ode to the humble fax machine

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Amid today’s constant flurry of texts and tweets, the hum and beep of a fax machine calls to mind a different era.

But when a Quincy attorney learned last weekend that a client might have valuable information about the 1990 art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, that’s exactly how he notified the US Attorney’s Office. By fax.

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“I do everything that way,” said George G. Burke, 83, bristling at questions about his choice of technology.

In his line of work, sending faxes is routine, he said. He also uses e-mail, but he opted for fax this time because when he flipped through the trusty Massachusetts Lawyers Diary and Manual on his desk, the entry for US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz listed no e-mail address, only a fax.

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For industries like law, real estate, government, and health care, the humble fax remains a useful bridge between the digital and print worlds, particularly where signatures are involved. But in most other fields, faxes are quaint relics, remnants of a pre-digital era, rarely used but kept around the office — just in case.

“It’s like having a compass in case a GPS goes out,” said Jonathan Coopersmith, author of “Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine.”

Three decades ago, the fax seemed almost magical, able to transmit documents around the world in a matter of minutes — no stamps, no messengers needed. But by the late 1990s, the rise of the Web left the fax looking a little old-school, a little passe.

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There’s no doubt the technology’s cultural cachet has waned. Perhaps its last star turn was in the 1999 comedy “Office Space,” when a throng of cubicle dwellers deliver a beat down to a glitchy fax machine. Lacking the vintage chic of typewriters, fax machines exist in a sort of functional but socially irrelevant purgatory.

Necco retired its “Fax Me” candy heart greeting in 2013, after nearly two decades. In “The Office,” the machine was a primarily a tool for pranks, as when Jim bamboozled Dwight with faxes from his future self signed, “Cordially, Future Dwight.” Last fall, “The Colbert Report” featured a Detroit Free Press video about cash-strapped fire stations with a fax-based emergency alert system.

“If there’s a fire, just remember the old saying: stop, drop ,and roll over to your Canon LC 2050 Laser Class fax machine, then load the paper tray, paste your document text side down into the feeder, dial your local fire department and hit send,” Colbert joked.

Even in the political arena, the fax has taken on a comical edge.

Last month, Internet activists faxed senators to protest the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act for what they say would be overreaching surveillance. The protesters resorted to “a technology from the 1980s that is hopefully antiquated enough for [Congress] to understand,” according to faxbigbrother.com.

Then there’s Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “fax issues,” well chronicled in recently released private e-mails. The very mechanics of a fax seemed to be a mystery to the former secretary of state.

“I thought it was supposed to be off hook to work?” Clinton wrote to her aide, Huma Abedin. “My fax is broken!” Clinton wrote in another exchange. The response: “Do you want me just to drive it over to you?”

These days, even if the fax does work, most employees ignore it.

Massachusetts State Police Trooper Dustin Fitch said that each police barracks has a fax machine, but staffers have mostly transitioned to digital communication.

“How often it’s used? I couldn’t answer that,” Fitch said, of the fax machine in his office. “Not very often.”

Fax usage has always been difficult to track, made particularly so by the shifts from specialized thermal paper to plain paper, and from single-function fax machines to all-in-one printers that include copying, scanning, and faxing functions. About 78 million of such multifunction devices were shipped in 2014, but there has never been a way to determine the volume of faxes sent and received, said Ken Weilerstein, an analyst at technology research firm Gartner.

“Maybe the NSA could tell you,” he said. “But they won’t.”

Shintaro “Sam” Asano, a Fulbright scholar at MIT who went on to design the fax machine in the early 1970s, now runs an IT company in Woburn. The 80-year-old Asano, wearing an Apple watch at an interview this week, acknowledged that faxing is an “old-fashioned” technology, largely overlooked by younger generations. Still, he said, its convenience and privacy keep it relevant. Scanning, he said, is more cumbersome, and faxes are harder to intercept than e-mail.

“I don’t really believe the fax machine will rise again,” he said. “But I cannot say the fax machine will die.”

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at stephanie.mcfeeters@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mcfeeters.
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