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September 25, 1807
Morristown, New Jersey
January 18, 1859
Alfred Lewis Vail (
September 25, 1807, in Morristown, New Jersey– January 18, 1859) was a machinistand inventor. Vail was central, with Samuel F.B. Morse, in developing and commercializing the telegraph between 1837 and 1844. [http://www.parks.morris.nj.us/speedwell/tel/tel.html] Vail and Morse were the first two telegraph operators on Morse's first experimental line between Washington, DC, and Baltimore, and Vail took charge of building and managing several early telegraph lines between 1845 and 1848. He was also responsible for several technical innovations of Morse's system, particularly the sending key and improved recording registers and relay magnets. Vail left the telegraph industry in 1848 because he believed that the managers of Morse's lines did not fully value his contributions. His last assignment, superintendent of the Washington and New Orleans Telegraph Company, paid him only $900 a year, leading Vail to write to Morse, "I have made up my mind to leave the Telegraph to take care of itself, since it cannot take care of me. I shall, in a few months, leave Washington for New Jersey,...and bid adieu to the subject of the Telegraph for some more profitable business." [Morse, Edward L., ed. Samuel F. B. Morse, His Letters and Journals. New York, 1914]
Vail's parents were
Bethiah Youngs(1778-1847) and Stephen Vail(1780-1864). Vail was born in Morristown, New Jersey, where his father was an entrepreneur and industrialist who built the Speedwell Ironworksinto one of the most innovative iron works of its time. [ [http://www.bookrags.com/biography/alfred-vail-woi/ Alfred Vail] , World of Invention. Accessed June 1, 2008. "Alfred Vail was born on September 25, 1807, in Morristown, New Jersey, where his father, Stephen, operated the Speedwell Iron Works."] Their son and Alfred's brother was George Vail, a noted politician of his time.
Alfred attended public schools before taking a job as a machinist at the iron works. He enrolled in
New York Universityto study theology in 1832, where he was an active and successful student and a member of the Eucleian Society, graduating in 1836. [http://www.parks.morris.nj.us/speedwell/tel/tel.html] Visiting his alma mater on September 2, 1837, he happened to witness one of Samuel F. B. Morse's early telegraph experiments. He became fascinated by the technology and negotiated an arrangement with Morse to develop the technology at Speedwell at his own expense in return for 25% of the proceeds. ck Alfred split his share with his brother George. When Morse took on Francis O.J. Smith, a congressman from Maine, as a partner, he reduced the Vails' share to one-eighth. Morse retained patent rights to everything Vail developed.
After having secured his father's financial backing, Vail refined Morse's crude prototype to make it suitable for public demonstration and commercial operation. The first successful completion of a transmission with this system was at the Speedwell Iron Works on January 6, 1838, across two miles (3 km) of wiring. The message read "A patient waiter is no loser." Over the next few months Morse and Vail demonstrated the telegraph to Philadelphia's
Franklin Institute, members of Congress, and President Van Buren and his cabinet. Demonstrations such as these were crucial to Morse's obtaining a Congressional appropriation of $30,000 to build his first line in 1844 from Washington to Baltimore.
There has been a minor controversy as to whether Vail or Morse invented the "Morse Code". The argument for Vail's invention is laid out by a number of scholars. [Pope, Franklin Leonard. "The American Inventors of the Telegraph, with Special References to the Services of Alfred Vail." Century Illustrated Magazine 35 (April 1888), 924-45. [http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/cgi-bin/moa/moa-cgi?notisid=ABP2287-0035-212 on-line copy at Cornell's Making of America] ] [http://www.telegraph-office.com/pages/vail.html] [cite news |first=Edward Lind |last=Morse |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Defends His Father's Claim to Paternity of the Telegraph. |url= |quote=My attention has been called to a communication in
The New York Timesof June 7 headed "Vail, Father of the Telegraph," and signed Stephen Vail. While I have no desire to enter into a newspaper controversy with Mr. Vail, and while I am sure that you have no desire to encourage one, I trust in justice to my father, Samuel F.B. Morse, you will allow me a few words in reply. |publisher= New York Times|date= June 21, 1904, Tuesday |accessdate=2007-07-21 ]
The argument offered by supporters of Morse claims that Morse originally devised a cipher code similar to that used in existing semaphore telegraphs, by which words were assigned three or four digit numbers and entered into a codebook. The sending operator converted words to these number groups and the receiving operator converted them back to words using this codebook. Morse spent several months compiling this code dictionary. It is said by Morse supporters that Vail, in public and private writings, never claimed the code for himself. According to one researcher, in a February 1838 letter to his father, Judge Stephen Vail, Alfred wrote, "Professor Morse has invented a new plan of an alphabet, and has thrown aside the Dictionaries." [Silverman, Kenneth. Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse. New York, 2003, p. 167] In an 1845 book Vail wrote describing Morse's telegraph, he also attributed the code to Morse. [Alfred Vail, The American Electro Magnetic Telegraph: With the Reports of Congress, and a Description of all Telegraphs Known, Employing Electricity or Galvanism, Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1845. Reprinted by New York: Arno Press, 1974]
Vail retired from the telegraph operations in 1848 and moved back to Morristown. He spent his last ten years conducting genealogical research. Since Vail shared a one-eighth interest in Morse's telegraph patents with his brother George, Vail realized far less financial gains from his work on the telegraph than Morse and others.
His papers and equipment were subsequently donated by his son Stephen to the
Smithsonian Institutionand New Jersey Historical Society.
Vail's cousin was
Theodore N. Vail, who became the first president of American Telephone & Telegraph.
A US Army base has been named in his honor,
Camp Vailin Eatontown, New Jersey, later renamed Fort Monmouthpart of Camp Vail was an Army housing complex, after WWII the families of Servicemen & Civilian Army Employees negotiatedwith the Army to purchase the development which was later named, Alfred Vail Mutual Association, and due to the work of the Town Clerk the residents retained the rights to the original Charter of Shrewsbury TownshipEst. 1693.This Housing Development Exist to this day under that name. An elementary school near the Speedwell Works, in Morristown, New Jersey, is named "Alfred Vail."
* [http://www.morsetelegraphclub.org/ Morse Telegraph Club, Inc.] (The Morse Telegraph Club is an international non-profit organization dedicated to the perpetuation of the knowledge and traditions of telegraphy.)
* [http://speedwell.org/Vail/AVbio.html Alfred Vail Biography at speedwell.org]
* [http://www.du.edu/~jcalvert/tel/morse/morse.htm The Electromagnetic Telegraph by J. B. Calvert]
* [http://www.jerseyhistory.org/findingaiddirnb.php?dir=EAD/faid0500&aid=mg0050 Profile of Alfred Vail (Manuscript Group 50, Alfred Vail Papers, The New Jersey Historical Society)]
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