Biography of Alfred Vail
Famous American Biographies

ALFRED VAIL was one of the men that gave to the world the electric telegraph and the names of Henry, Morse and Vail will forever remain linked as the prime faators in that great achievement. Mr. Vail was born September 25, 1807, at Morristown, New Jersey, and was a son of Stephen Vail, the proprietor of the Speedwell Iron Works, near Morristown. At the age of seventeen, after he had completed his studies at the Morristown Academy, Alfred Vail went into the Speedwell Iron Works and contented himself with the duties of his position until he reached his majority. He then determined to prepare thimself for the ministry, and at the age of twenty five he entered the University of the City of New York, where he was graduated in 1836. His health becoming impaired he labored for a time under much uncertainty as to his Zuture course. Professor S. F. B. Morse had come to the university in 1835 as professor of literature and fine arts, and about this time, 1837, Professor Gale, occupying the chair of chemistry, invited Morse to exhibit his apparatus for the benefit of the students. On Saturday, September 2, 1837, the exhibition took place and Vail was asked to attend, and with his inherited taste for mechanics and knowledge of their construction, he saw a great future for the crude mechanism used by Morse in giving and recording signals. Mr. Vail interested his father in the invention, and Morse was invited to Speed well and the elder Vail promised to help him. It was stipulated that Alfred Vail should construct the required apparatus and exhibit before a committee of congress the telegraph instrument, and was to receive a quarter interest in the invention. Morse had devised a series of ten numbered leaden types, which were to be operated in giving the signal. This was not satisfactory to Vail, so he devised an entirely new instrument, involving a lever, or "point," on a radically different principle, which, when tested, produced dots and dashes, and devised the famous dot and dash alphabet, misnamed the "Morse." At last the machine was in working order, on January 6, 1838. The machine was taken to Washington, where it caused not only wonder, but excitement. Vail continued his experiments and devised the lever and roller. When the line between Baltimore and Washington was completed, Vail was stationed at the Baltimore end and received the famous first message. It is a remarkable fact that not a single feature of the original invention of Morse, as formulated by his caveat and repeated in his original patent, is to be found in Vail's apparatus. From 1837 to 1844 it was a combination of the inventions of Morse, Henry and Vail, but the work of Morse fell gradually into desuetude, while Vail's conception of an alphabet has remained unchanged for half a century. Mr. Vail published but one work, "American Electro Magnetic Telegraph," in 1845, and died at Morristown at the comparatively early age of fifty one, on January 19, 1859.

A Biographical Record
Of Schuyler County, New York
The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company
New York and Chicago 1903.


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