Alfred Lewis Vail (September 25, 1807, – January 18, 1859) was a machinist and inventor. Vail was instrumental in helping Samuel F.B. Morse develop and commercialize his telegraph between 1837 and 1844. Following the successful first public demonstrations of the telegraph, Vail organized and built several telegraph lines. Vail also made several technical improvements to Morse's system, including the sending key, recording registers, and relay magnets. By 1848, Vail left the telegraph business entirely.
Vail was born in Morristown, New Jersey, to Stephen Vail (1780-1864) and Bethiah Youngs (1778-1847). Stephen Vail was an entrepreneur and industrialist who built the Speedwell Iron Works into one of the most innovative iron works of its time. 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 the University of the City of New York (now New York University) to study theology in 1832, graduating in 1836.
Returning to UCNY on September 2, 1837, Vail 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. 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. Vail also began tinkering with the apparatus and developed some key improvements, however, 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 three miles of wiring. The message read "A patient waiter is no loser." Over the next few months Morse and Vail demonstrated the telegraph at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, members of Congress, and President Van Buren and his cabinet. As a result of these demonstrations, Morse obtained a Congressional appropriation of $30,000 to build his first line in 1844 from Washington to Baltimore.
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. Alfred Vail is often credited with having developed the telegraph code known as the Morse code. However, Vail, in public and private writings, never claimed the code for himself. For example, 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." In an 1845 book Vail wrote describing Morse's telegraph, he also attributed the code to Morse.
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 was as superintendent of the Washington and New Orleans Telegraph Company, which paid him only $900 a year. These partry wages led 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."
Vail then moved back to Morristown and 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.
- Franklin Leonard Pope, "The American Inventors of the Telegraph, with Special References to the Services of Alfred Vail." Century Illustrated Magazine 35 (April 1888), 924-45.
- Kenneth Silverman, Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse (New York, 2003), 167.
- 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.
- Edward L. Morse, ed. Samuel F. B. Morse, His Letters and Journals. New York, 1914