Challenger Space Shuttle first launch

The first launch of the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1983.

The explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle on January 28, 1986, shocked an entire nation and set the U.S. space program back for years. The aftermath affected thousands of individuals, companies and governments in ways that were impossible to predict. While most of those stories were filled with difficulty and sadness, by an odd twist of fate, that disaster set in motion a chain of events that would cause us to reinvent our company nearly a decade later.

From the 1950s until the mid-’80s, Digital Check was heavily involved (under various company names) in cameras, projectors, and microfilm – which was falling into quick decline as computers and digital storage became a more practical replacement. Around the same time, modern fax machines were just beginning to emerge, and a company by the name of Federal Express put a big bet down on them in 1984 with a new service called Zapmail.

FedEx’s big idea was that, since it already possessed a very popular overnight document-delivery business, its customers would be excited to be able to have important papers delivered even faster – a matter of hours to anywhere in the country. Fax machines of the time were far too expensive to be practical for individuals and most businesses, but a company like FedEx could put one in each of its offices and offer faxing as a walk-in service. At $3.50 per page, it wasn’t cheap, but it still had advantages over transporting the physical paper around the country.

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Zapmail started out with big plans, but without a satellite relay, was outcompeted by commercial faxes.

But Zapmail ran into trouble quickly: Customers were slow to adopt the service, and the telecommunications networks of the time were often not fast or reliable enough to handle high-speed data transmission. FedEx planned to solve the problem by launching its own satellite to serve as a relay. But when the Challenger incident grounded the Space Shuttle fleet indefinitely, that possibility vanished. Without a satellite, and with over-the-counter fax machines quickly becoming competitive, FedEx shut down the service later that same year and sold the equipment for parts.

The Zapmailers, as the machines themselves were known, had been custom-built for Federal Express by the Japanese electronics giant NEC – and they were made with components that went beyond top quality. A built-in laser printer, 400 dpi digital scanner, 20 MB hard drive, and an unheard-of 2 MB of memory made it a veritable supercomputer for the time. First, the laser printers were scavenged and re-used; later, the worldwide semiconductor shortage of 1988 caused the price of DRAM memory to skyrocket, and an enterprising electronics recycler reportedly bought the machines for $1 million and sold the memory for $8 million. The machines were moved to a Northern California warehouse, and the hard drives and monitors were stripped. That’s where they sat until we were approached in 1993 by a company named VisionShape about the possibility of remaking the final remnants of the Zapmailers into a new high-speed scanner.

As it turned out, the scanning mechanisms of the old machines remained intact, and were still top-of-the-line nearly a decade later. We started with an initial batch of 500 Zapmailers and got a bit of a surprise: Since we were taking the last working parts, we had to take the entire machines, which at roughly the size of a large office copier meant they took several 18-wheeler trucks to transport. After disassembling the machines, we were able to repurpose the components into a new scanner, the VisionShape VS1000, which could scan 30 pages per minute from a multi-feed hopper, and output them as high-resolution TIFF files. We continued to manufacture VisionShape scanners from the old NEC devices until 1998, when commercial scanners were themselves becoming too small and inexpensive to keep up with. We’ve found examples of VisionShape machines that were in everyday use until 2010 – 26 years after the Zapmail service was first introduced.

In a twist of irony, the first paying customer for the VisionShape VS1000 scanner was the Cerritos, CA, office of Federal Express.