Alfred Vail

Alfred Lewis Vail (September 25, 1807 – January 18, 1859) was an American machinist and inventor. Along with Samuel Morse, Vail was central in developing and commercializing American telegraphy between 1837 and 1844.[1]

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."[2]

Alfred Vail
Alfred Vail
Alfred Vail
BornSeptember 25, 1807
DiedJanuary 18, 1859 (aged 51)
NationalityUnited States United States
Engineering career


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 Ironworks into one of the most innovative iron works of its time.[3] Their son and Alfred's brother was George Vail, a noted politician.

Alfred attended public schools before taking a job as a machinist at the iron works. He enrolled in New York University to study theology in 1832, where he was an active and successful student and a member of the Eucleian Society, graduating in 1836.[1] 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 Ironworks at his own expense in return for 25% of the proceeds. Alfred split his share with his brother George Vail. 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 Martin 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.

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 gain from his work on the telegraph than Morse and others.

His papers and equipment were subsequently donated by his son Stephen to the Smithsonian Institution and New Jersey Historical Society.

Vail's cousin was Theodore N. Vail, who became the first president of American Telephone & Telegraph.

Morse code

Alfred Vail and Samuel Morse collaborated in the invention of Morse code. A controversy exists over the role of each in the invention. The argument for Vail being the original inventor is laid out by several scholars.[4][5][6][7]

The argument offered by supporters of Morse claims that Morse originally devised a cipher code similar to that used in existing semaphore line 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."[8] In an 1845 book Vail wrote describing Morse's telegraph, he also attributed the code to Morse.[9]


A US Army base was named in his honor. Camp Vail in Eatontown, New Jersey, later renamed Fort Monmouth, was an Army housing complex. After World War II the families of servicemen and civilian Army employees negotiated with 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 Township Est. 1693. This housing development exists to this day under that name. An elementary school near the Speedwell Works, in Morristown, New Jersey, is named "Alfred Vail."


  1. ^ a b [1] Archived March 21, 2005, at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ Morse, Edward L., ed. Samuel F. B. Morse, His Letters and Journals. New York, 1914
  3. ^ 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."
  4. ^ 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. on-line copy at Cornell's Making of America
  5. ^ [2]
  6. ^ Morse, Edward Lind (June 21, 1904). "Defends His Father's Claim to Paternity of the Telegraph" (PDF). The New York Times. Retrieved 2017-10-31. My attention has been called to a communication in The New York Times of 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.
  7. ^ Vail, Stephen (June 25, 1904). "VAIL-MORSE CONTROVERSY.; Stephen Vail on His Father's Claim to Telegraph Invention" (PDF). The New York Times. Retrieved 2017-10-31. Alfred Vail ... invented the new "recording receiver," "the sounding key," and the "dot-and-dash" alphabet...but doing his duty in strict accordance with his understanding of the terms of his contract, and that to Morse belonged all that he had accomplished.
  8. ^ Silverman, Kenneth. Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse. New York, 2003, p. 167
  9. ^ 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

External links

1807 in the United States

Events from the year 1807 in the United States.

1838 in the United States

Events from the year 1838 in the United States.

American Morse code

American Morse Code — also known as Railroad Morse—is the latter-day name for the original version of the Morse Code developed in the mid-1840s, by Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail for their electric telegraph. The "American" qualifier was added because, after most of the rest of the world adopted "International Morse Code," the companies that continued to use the original Morse Code were mainly located in the United States. American Morse is now nearly extinct—it is most frequently seen in American railroad museums and American Civil War reenactments—and "Morse Code" today virtually always means the International Morse which supplanted American Morse.

Baltimore–Washington telegraph line

The Baltimore–Washington telegraph line was the first long-distance telegraph system set up to run overland in the United States.

Communications receiver

A communications receiver is a type of radio receiver used as a component of a radio communication link. This is in contrast to a broadcast receiver which is used to receive radio broadcasts. A communication receiver receives parts of the radio spectrum not used for broadcasting, that includes amateur, military, aircraft, marine, and other bands. They are often used with a radio transmitter as part of a two way radio link for shortwave radio or amateur radio communication, although they are also used for shortwave listening.

Fort Monmouth

Fort Monmouth is a former installation of the Department of the Army in Monmouth County, New Jersey. The post is surrounded by the communities of Eatontown, Tinton Falls and Oceanport, New Jersey, and is located about five miles (8.0 km) from the Atlantic Ocean. The post covers nearly 1,126 acres (4.56 km2) of land, from the Shrewsbury River on the east, to Route 35 on the west; this area is referred to as 'Main Post'. A separate area (Camp Charles Wood) to the west includes post housing, a golf course, and additional office and laboratory facilities. A rail line, owned by Conrail, runs through Camp Charles Wood and out to Naval Weapons Station Earle. The post is like a small town, including a Post Exchange (PX), health clinic, gas station and other amenities. Until the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks the post was open to the public to drive through; after that time, the post was closed to all but authorized personnel. The main road through the fort was reopened to the public in 2017.

The post was home to several units of the U.S. Army Materiel Command and offices of the Army Acquisition Executive (AAE) that research and manage Command and Control, Communications, Computing, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities and related technology, as well as an interservice organization designed to coordinate C4ISR, an academic preparatory school, an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) unit, a garrison services unit, an Army health clinic, and a Veterans Administration health clinic. Other agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Security Agency, have presences on the post.

The post was selected for closure by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission in 2005. Most Army functions and personnel were required to be moved to Army facilities in Maryland—such as Aberdeen Proving Ground—and Ohio by 2011. The post officially closed on September 15, 2011. However, it was temporarily reopened on December 2, 2012, for the evacuation of the borough of Paulsboro's residents to be temporarily resettled to the former Fort Monmouth until it is deemed safe for them to move back to Paulsboro, following a freight train derailment on November 30, 2012.

George Vail

George Vail (July 21, 1809 – May 23, 1875) was an American Democratic Party politician who represented New Jersey's 4th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives from 1853 to 1857. His father Stephen Vail, and his brother Alfred Vail were the driving force behind the success of the Speedwell Iron Works. Father and sons assisted in the technical expertise and financial development of this family business. The Vail family contributions to mechanical inventions, early communication, transportation industry, and mass production placed Speedwell at the cutting edge of the Industrial Revolution in the United States.

Letter frequency

The frequency of letters in text has been studied for use in cryptanalysis, and frequency analysis in particular, dating back to the Iraqi mathematician Al-Kindi (c. 801–873 AD), who formally developed the method (the ciphers breakable by this technique go back at least to the Caesar cipher invented by Julius Caesar, so this method could have been explored in classical times). Letter frequency analysis gained additional importance in Europe with the development of movable type in 1450 AD, where one must estimate the amount of type required for each letterform, as evidenced by the variations in letter compartment size in typographer's type cases.

Linguists use letter frequency analysis as a rudimentary technique for language identification, where it's particularly effective as an indication of whether an unknown writing system is alphabetic, syllablic, or ideographic. For example, the Japanese Hiragana syllabary contains 46 distinct characters, which is more than most phonetic alphabets; by contrast, the English and Hawaiian alphabets have only 26 and 13 letters, respectively.

No exact letter frequency distribution underlies a given language, since all writers write slightly differently. However, most languages have a characteristic distribution which is strongly apparent in longer texts. Even language changes as extreme as from old English to modern English (regarded as mutually unintelligible) show strong trends in related letter frequencies: over a small sample of Biblical passages, from most frequent to least frequent, enaid sorhm tgþlwu (æ)cfy ðbpxz of old English compares to eotha sinrd luymw fgcbp kvjqxz of modern English, with the most extreme differences concerning letterforms not shared.Linotype machines for the English language assumed the letter order, from most to least common, to be etaoin shrdlu cmfwyp vbgkjq xz based on the experience and custom of manual compositors. The equivalent for the French language was elaoin sdrétu cmfhyp vbgwqj xz.

Modern International Morse code (generally believed to have been developed by Alfred Vail based on English-language letter frequencies of the 1830s) encodes the most frequent letters with the shortest symbols; arranging the Morse alphabet into groups of letters that require equal amounts of time to transmit, and then sorting these groups in increasing order, yields e it san hurdm wgvlfbk opxcz jyq. Similar ideas are used in modern data-compression techniques such as Huffman coding.

Letter frequency was used by other telegraph systems, such as the Murray Code.

List of amateur radio modes

The following is a list of the modes of radio communication used in the amateur radio hobby.

List of telegraphists

This is a list of notable telegraphists.

Morristown, New Jersey

Morristown is a town and the county seat of Morris County, New Jersey, United States. Morristown has been called "the military capital of the American Revolution" because of its strategic role in the war for independence from Great Britain. Today this history is visible in a variety of locations throughout the town that collectively make up Morristown National Historical Park.

According to British colonial records, the first permanent European settlement at Morristown occurred in 1715, when a settlement was founded as New Hanover by migrants from New York and Connecticut. Morris County was created on March 15, 1739, from portions of Hunterdon County. The county, and ultimately Morristown itself, was named for the popular Governor of the Province, Lewis Morris, who championed benefits for the colonists.Morristown was incorporated as a town by an act of the New Jersey Legislature on April 6, 1865, within Morris Township, and it was formally set off from the township in 1895. As of the 2010 United States Census, the town's population was 18,411, reflecting a decline of 133 (-0.7%) from the 18,544 counted in the 2000 Census, which had in turn increased by 2,355 (+14.5%) from the 16,189 counted in the 1990 Census.

Morse code

Morse code is a character encoding scheme used in telecommunication that encodes text characters as standardized sequences of two different signal durations called dots and dashes or dits and dahs. Morse code is named for Samuel F. B. Morse, an inventor of the telegraph.

The International Morse Code encodes the 26 English letters A through Z, some non-English letters, the Arabic numerals and a small set of punctuation and procedural signals (prosigns). There is no distinction between upper and lower case letters. Each Morse code symbol is formed by a sequence of dots and dashes. The dot duration is the basic unit of time measurement in Morse code transmission. The duration of a dash is three times the duration of a dot. Each dot or dash within a character is followed by period of signal absence, called a space, equal to the dot duration. The letters of a word are separated by a space of duration equal to three dots, and the words are separated by a space equal to seven dots. To increase the efficiency of encoding, Morse code was designed so that the length of each symbol is approximately inverse to the frequency of occurrence in text of the English language character that it represents. Thus the most common letter in English, the letter "E", has the shortest code: a single dot. Because the Morse code elements are specified by proportion rather than specific time durations, the code is usually transmitted at the highest rate that the receiver is capable of decoding. The Morse code transmission rate (speed) is specified in groups per minute, commonly referred to as words per minute.Morse code is usually transmitted by on-off keying of an information carrying medium such as electric current, radio waves, visible light or sound waves. The current or wave is present during time period of the dot or dash and absent during the time between dots and dashes.Morse code can be memorized, and Morse code signalling in a form perceptible to the human senses, such as sound waves or visible light, can be directly interpreted by persons trained in the skill.Because many non-English natural languages use other than the 26 Roman letters, Morse alphabets have been developed for those languages.

In an emergency, Morse code can be generated by improvised methods such as turning a light on and off, tapping on an object or sounding a horn or whistle, making it one of the simplest and most versatile methods of telecommunication. The most common distress signal is SOS – three dots, three dashes, and three dots – internationally recognized by treaty.

O'Reilly v. Morse

O'Reilly v. Morse, 56 U.S. (15 How.) 62 (1853), also known as The Telegraph Patent Case, is an 1854 decision of the United States Supreme Court that has been highly influential in the development of the law of patent-eligibility in regard to claimed inventions in the field of computer-software related art. It holds, essentially, that an abstract idea, apart from its implementation, is not patent-eligible.

Orrin S. Wood

Orrin Squire Wood (December 14, 1817-June 22, 1909) (normally referred to as Orrin S. Wood) was one of early pioneers of the telegraph industry in the United States and Canada.

The brother-in-law of Ezra Cornell, who assisted Samuel Morse in the construction of the Baltimore-Washington telegraph line, Wood was recruited in August 1844 to be a telegraph operator on the line, and was Morse's first pupil. He was one of the founders of the Magnetic Telegraph Company with Cornell, Morse, and others, in 1845. He helped set up a telegraph exhibition in lower Manhattan in New York, and built a one-mile line for demonstration at the 1845 New York State Fair in Utica, New York. He also oversaw the building of the line between Albany, New York and Utica which opened in early 1846, the beginning of the rapid expansion of the telegraph in North America. He then opened the first commercial telegraph office in New York City in the fall of 1846. In 1847, he was recruited to be president of the newly formed Montreal Telegraph Company, which rapidly established lines to Toronto and, Quebec City, and then New York in August 1847. He remained with that company until 1866, and substantially retired following a few years additional work in the Wisconsin area. Duggan House, a mansion in Montreal now owned by McGill University, was built for Wood in 1861.Wood was born in Sherburne, New York on December 14, 1817, and died in Turner, New York at age 91 on June 22, 1909. Having long outlined Morse, Alfred Vail, and Cornell, he was noted to be the "oldest living telegrapher" in his final years.

Outline of telecommunication

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to telecommunication:

Telecommunication – the transmission of signals over a distance for the purpose of communication. In modern times, this process almost always involves the use of electromagnetic waves by transmitters and receivers, but in earlier years it also involved the use of drums and visual signals such as smoke, fire, beacons, semaphore lines and other optical communications.

Samuel Morse

Samuel Finley Breese Morse, OIC (April 27, 1791 – April 2, 1872) was an American painter and inventor. After having established his reputation as a portrait painter, in his middle age Morse contributed to the invention of a single-wire telegraph system based on European telegraphs. He was a co-developer of Morse code and helped to develop the commercial use of telegraphy.

Speedwell Ironworks

Speedwell Ironworks was an ironworks in Speedwell Village, on Speedwell Avenue (part of U.S. Route 202), just north of downtown Morristown, in Morris County, New Jersey, United States. At this site Alfred Vail and Samuel Morse first demonstrated the electric telegraph. Speedwell Ironworks also provided most of the machinery for the SS Savannah, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The site is still open to the public, and has seven buildings on display. The site, now named Historical Speedwell, is a historic site of the Morris County Park Commission.

Stephen Vail

Stephen Vail (1780–1864) was a founding partner of the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia and the creator of the Speedwell Ironworks in Morristown, New Jersey.

Telegraph sounder

A telegraph sounder is an antique electromechanical device used as a receiver on electrical telegraph lines during the 19th century. It was invented by Alfred Vail after 1850 to replace the previous receiving device, the cumbersome Morse register and was the first practical application of the electromagnet. When a telegraph message comes in it produces an audible "clicking" sound representing the short and long keypresses – "dots" and "dashes" – which are used to represent text characters in Morse code. A telegraph operator would translate the sounds into characters representing the telegraph message.

Telegraph networks, used from the 1850s to the 1920s to transmit text messages long distances, transmitted information by pulses of current of two different lengths, called "dots" and "dashes" which spelled out text messages in Morse code. A telegraph operator at the sending end of the line would create the message by tapping on a switch called a telegraph key, which rapidly connects and breaks the circuit to a battery, sending pulses of current down the line.

The telegraph sounder was used at the receiving end of the line to make the Morse code message audible. Its simple mechanism was similar to a relay. It consisted of an electromagnet attached to the telegraph line, with an iron armature near the magnet's pole balanced on a pivot, held up by a counterweight. When current flowed through the electromagnet's winding, it created a magnetic field which attracted the armature, pulling it down to the electromagnet, resulting in a "click" sound. When the current ended, the counterweight pulled the armature back up to its resting position, resulting in a "clack" sound. Thus, as the telegraph key at the sending end makes and breaks the contact, the sounder echoes the up and down state of the key.

It was important that a sounder make a sound both when the circuit was broken and when it was restored. This was necessary for the operator to clearly distinguish the long and short keypresses – the "dashes" and "dots" – that make up the characters in morse code.

Network topology
and switching

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