Samuel Morse achieved historical immortality as the inventor of the telegraph. Alfred Vail is a victim of that historical obscurity that envelopes the vast majority of people who have ever lived, but in his case unjustly.
Son of the industrial who made the Speedwell Ironworks into one of the most technologically advanced ironworks of its day. From 1832-1836 Vail attended college at New York University, studying theology. At New York University on September 2, 1837 he witnessed an early demonstration of the telegraph by Morse. Vail signed on to work with Morse for a 25% share in the profits and convinced his father to help fund the project. Vail signed an agreement with Morse by which the name of Morse alone would appear on any patents based on developments made by Vail of the Morse telegraph. It should be noted that Vail gave no indication at any time that he thought he was being treated unfairly by Morse.
Vail’s work vastly improved the telegraph of Morse, and Vail has a better claim than Morse to the title of inventor of the Morse code. Vail’s assistant William Baxter wrote about this in later years:
Alfred was singularly modest and unassuming, while Professor Morse was very much inclined to insist on the superiority of his own plans and methods – if for no other reason; because they were his own. As we all looked upon him with the respect due to a professor, we were at first quite willing to defer submissively to his dicta. It resulted from this, that the first machine which was constructed at Speedwell was substantially a copy of the original model, although constructed of metal, in a more symmetrical and practical form.
As we became acquainted with Morse it became evident to us that his mechanical knowledge and skill were limited, and his ideas in matters relating to construction of little value. As the weak points in the apparatus were one after another developed, Alfred began to draw upon the resources of his own wonderful power of invention in substituting practical and commercially valuable mechanical combinations for the more or less impracticable designs of Morse.
We found, for example, that the pencil of the recording apparatus frequently required repointing, and that when freshly sharpened it made a different mark from that made by a worn point, which tended to render the record obscure and difficult to decipher. Alfred contrived a fountain pen that made a uniform line. This device, however, was not satisfactory to him, as it threw the ink in all directions when jerked by the sudden action of the magnet, and he spent some time in diligent study in the endeavor to devise a remedy.
He was a mechanical draughtsman of surpassing skill, as is fully attested by some of his work still in possession of his family. He brought to me one day, after working for an hour at his drawing table , a sketch of a new marking device, in which a vertical motion was given to the lever instead of the transverse movement which had hitherto been employed. We constructed the new lever, and thus for the first time produced a register capable of making dots, dashes, and spaces.
Alfred’s brain was at this time working at high pressure, and evolving new ideas every day. He saw in these new characters the elements of an alphabetical code by which language could be telegraphically transmitted in actual words and sentences, and he instantly set himself at work to construct such a code. His general plan was to employ the simplest and shortest combinations to represent the most frequently recurring letters of the English alphabet, and the remainder for the more infrequent ones. For instance, he found upon investigation that the letter e occurs much more frequently than any other letter, and accordingly he assigned to it the shortest symbol, a single dot(.). On the other hand, j, which occurs infrequently, is expressed by dash-dot-dash-dot (-.-.) After going through a computation, in order to ascertain the relative frequency of the occurrence of different letters in the English alphabet, Alfred was seized with sudden inspiration, and visited the office of the Morristown local newspaper, where be found the whole problem worked out for him in the type cases of the compositor.
In this statement I have given the true origin of the misnamed ” Morse ” alphabet the very foundation and corner-stone of a new system, which has, since become the universal telegraphic language of the world.
Vail had great respect for Morse and was content for Morse to have the limelight while he labored in the background. Morse went on to enjoy vast wealth and fame. Vail got out of the telegraph business in 1848 explaining in a letter to Morse that it did not pay well enough and that he was a moving on to hopefully more profitable business ventures. He ended up spending the rest of his life doing genealogical research on his family tree, dying in 1859, his death largely unnoted outside of his family circle.