FEBRUARY 23, 2007 - Alfred Vail SK (1837-2007)

Alfred Vail (1807-1859) is the true inventor of Morse code, as we know it today. The invention of the Morse code is generally attributed to Samuel F. B. Morse. Have we been mislead by historians?

Samuel Finley Breeze Morse was born in Charlestown, Mass. on 27th April 1791. He was not a scientist - he was a professional artist. Educated at Phillip's Academy at Andover, he graduated from Yale in 1810 and he lived in England from 1811 to 1815, exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1813. He spent the next ten years as an itinerant artist with a particular interest in portraiture. He returned to America in 1832 having been appointed Professor of Painting and Sculpture at the University of the City of New York. It was on this homeward voyage that he overheard a shipboard discussion on electromagnets. This was the seed out of which the electric telegraph grew. Morse is remembered for his Code, still used, and less for the invention that enabled it to be used, probably since landline telegraphy eventually gave way to wireless telegraphy.

From 1837 Morse gave the telegraph his full attention, having set up in partnership with Alfred Vail, Professor Leonard Gail, and congressman F. O. J. Smith. Vail provided funds and facilities at the family ironworks, and Smith legal expertise. There's an irony, therefore, that disagreements with Vail led to litigation; Vail provided funds for lawyers, too. The telegraph was eventually patented in Morse's name alone, an event granted by the US Supreme Court in 1854. Morse's decision to abandon painting was possibly due in part to his failure in 1836 to secure a commission to paint the Rotunda of the Capitol building, a commission he had expected.

The telegraph invented by Morse in 1832, and described in his caveat of 1837, has nothing in common with the essentials of the modern system of telegraphy which is known in the United States as Morse's; nor is the code of alphabetical signs now universally used in telegraphy throughout the world the same, either in principle, or in construction.

It is also important to remember that the code of conventional signals which had been devised by Morse, and which, in connection with his machine, he proposed to use for the transmission of intelligence, were numerical and not alphabetical. According to his scheme, a specially prepared dictionary was required in which every word in the English language was represented by an arbitrary number. A separate type represented each numeral, having a corresponding number of projections or teeth. We reproduce a specimen of telegraphic writing by this numerical code. The numbers refer to words in the telegraphic dictionary. They are translated by counting the points at the bottom of the line, and then, by referring to the dictionary, the corresponding words are found and the communication translated.

On the 29th, Morse went to Speedwell for a few days, partly to observe the progress of the new machinery, and partly with the intention of painting the portraits of the members of Judge Vail's household, in fulfillment of a commission which had been given him. Where he met Alfred Vail.

Alfred Vail had planned to join the Presbyterian Church on graduating from New York University, until illness forced him to change plans and invest his future in the telegraph instead. He bought a stake in Samuel Morse's telegraph, and agreed to build the system's hardware and secure the American and foreign patents. After Morse returned to New York, Alfred Vail and his young assistant, William Baxter, were engaged night and day in pushing forward the construction of the new machinery.

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 become acquainted with Morse it becomes 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.

The system had some problems printing out messages clearly, so Vail devised improvements. They didn't solve everything, and he was forced to create a completely new printing mechanism - and a new code to make it work. 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.

This was the first time 'Morse' code was created using dashes and dots, which actually wasn't much like Morse's original code at all. So in fact the true inventor of Morse Code was Vail, but Morse - being the better-known partner and personality - kept the glory himself!