“A patient waiter is no loser”. That was the first message sent over the new and improved wired telegraph at a public demonstration in Morristown, New Jersey January 11th 1838. The place? The Speedwell Iron Works, owned by Alfred Vail’s family. You may not have heard of Alfred Vail, but despite some controversy over his exact contributions, I believe he is the true inventor of what we today call Morse Code.
Samuel Morse, whose birthday is April 27th, is a very interesting historical character. During his early life one would have hardly expected him to have anything at all to do with technical projects such as a telegraph. He was, in fact, a very accomplished painter and art professor. He received many commissions to paint rich and well-known people of the day, such as John Adams. After decades of success, however, his commissions were becoming fewer and he struggled financially. The grief he felt for the lonely death of his wife in 1832, while he was traveling in Europe, was another catalyst that took his work in an entirely different direction. During the rush to return from Europe to his wife’s bedside, he’d been introduced to concepts of electromagnetism by Charles Thomas Jackson. This new-found knowledge inspired him to create a telegraph machine. He publicly demonstrated the cumbersome device in 1837, five years later.
At that demonstration was the young Alfred Vail, who became so interested in the device that he offered to help Morse improve it. They set up shop in space at Vail’s father’s iron works. The archives of Vail’s documents indicate that Morse was not really an active participant in the re-engineering of the device, Vail did most of that work. Also, Vail decided to take a different approach than Morse’s original code. Morse’s code consisted of only numerals. Words were encoded as numbers, sent over the line, and had to be decoded from a “dictionary”, which listed the numbers in order along with the word corresponding to that number. Imagine if we, ham radio operators, still had to send CW like that! Vail, with help from an assistant, first derived the frequency of use of each letter in the English alphabet by counting them in newspapers. He then developed the now familiar system of dots and dashes, giving the more frequent letters the shortest codes. Thus, the most frequent letter, ‘e’, is simply a single dot or dit.
The final problem, how to send the signal over distances longer than a few hundred feet, had eluded both Morse and Vail during this time. The distance was limited because they were using a single battery. Enter another forgotten contributor to the modern telegraph, Leonard Gale, a local chemistry professor, who gave them the idea of using multiple batteries and relays to extend the range. With that accomplishment, they were ready for the first public demonstration in one of the iron works buildings through which they had managed to string 3 Km of wire. That’s where that first message was sent, a message that for Vail’s near future seems prophetic in hindsight.
There were still years to go before the telegraph in the U.S. was to achieve real success. Eventually, their company received a $30,000 grant from Congress to create a 61 Km line between Baltimore, MD and Washington, D.C. In 1844, that line was completed and that’s when Morse sent the more well-known “first” telegraph message, “What Hath God Wrought?”. After this point the implementation of lines started to take off. Morse, not Vail, though, was to profit the most from their joint invention.
During early negotiations between Morse and Vail’s family, which put up the money for development, Morse had negotiated all rights to the invention giving Vail only 25% of future profits. Vail later took on a partner thus diluting his shares to half that. Despite being heavily involved in the early development and managing the contracts to put up telegraph lines, Vail became disillusioned with the company, thinking that his work was unappreciated (they were only paying him $900 per year). He perhaps was further perturbed that the 1844 U.S. Patent for the telegraph bore only the name of Samuel Morse, but that’s strictly speculation on my part. In any case, by 1848 Vail had resigned from telegraphy and pursued genealogy as a career. He had already sold the shares he’d retained before the real boom in telegraphy started. So, the impatient waiter did indeed became a loser. He died in 1859 at the age of 51. Think well of Vail tomorrow on Samuel Morse’s birthday and the next time you send or listen to “Morse” code, imagine the joy Vail’s spirit feels at the sound of it.