A Short History of Scanners

A short history of scanners is an apt title as comparatively speaking compared to some of the other devices out there they’ve not been around all that long, coming into their own in the 1990's but in that relatively short period have evolved massively. The choices available from flatbed to planetary (for scanning books and rare or easily damaged documents) or digital cameras which, with so much digital imagery readily available can quite often take the place of a scanner for capturing an image which ultimately leads to 3D which produce three-dimensional models of objects.

Although with the arrival of smaller and more portable digital capture devices reducing the need for their services, they continue to be popular and keep on evolving presenting a wide variation in designs and additional functionality and now deliver high quality resolution output for a fraction of the cost and size of their predecessor.

And so, to a Short History

Scanners actually owe their existence to telephotography, a technology based on the telegraph, only as an alternative to transmitting simple text, entire images can be conveyed. The theory involved radio or telephone signals using varied intensities, representing a range of tones and colours, which gradually form an image.

Telephotography became the communication medium of the day in the early 20th century, by the 1920's Western Union along with other service providers had tele-photographers in-house at lots of their sites.


Due to bandwidth limitations (as with the early days of the internet) over simple wire, the resolution of the end product by tele-photographers left a great deal to be desired.

Also, the equipment used in the early days of telephotography took up substantial space and came with enormous energy consumption requirements. They were all drum scanners, (the modern compact flatbed were still a distant dream). Striving to overcome these limitations led to greater innovation in this area, which went on to form the basis for modern scanners and fax machines – which are two closely related technologies.


One of the first working solutions was presented by the inventor Edouard Belin in 1913. Belin had begun working on the technology sometime around 1905. Telephotography continued to be in widespread use until 1990's. The contemporary scanners we recognise today came onto the commercial market in the 1980's, though resolution (which is measured in dots per inch, abbreviated to DPI often seen as dpi) was quite low until the late 1990's. This meant WYSIWYG "what you see is what you get" scanning wasn't available, as much of the image was lost in processing.

Types of scanner

Sheet-fed: due to their simplified optics, were amongst the earliest solutions to be mass-produced. Microtek established the first model a black and white device capable of 300 DPI in 1985.

Flatbeds: with their additional complexity, greater capabilities and advanced mechanics were later in coming to consumers. A number of companies such as Acer, Microtek and HP all began to offer their own models in the late 1980's.

Hi-resolution 600 DPI (plus) and colour versions weren’t widely available or economical enough to buy so didn't become that popular until the mid 1990's.

Some readers may possibly remember the hand scanner, a portable device inspired by the barcode reader that offered basic scanning facilities on a budget. These devices where inaccurate and offered poor resolution, they were popular as a novelty stopgap and in the early 1990's, virtually vanished off the market (you might find one on EBay If you really want one?)


At present, scanners remain practical to commercial organisation, mainly in the field of publishing. Until the relatively recent arrival and availability of digital cameras, home-users would have to scan photos or images for storage on to a PC or for emailing. With the advent and proliferation of digital devices the need for this has virtually been eliminated, and cheap all-in-one printers/fax machines mean less demand for document scanning.

Interesting Fact

Russell Kirsch's three-month-old sons picture scanned.

Russell Kirsch's three-month-old sons picture scanned.

Possibly the most well know and famous scanned images in history is a picture of Russell Kirsch son. Kirsch, was an engineer who worked on scanning technologies in the 50's, and was amongst the first photo-realistic images to be transmitted, the image remains well known today. Click to go back to the Scanning Page