Amateur Radio News

Happy Birthday to Alfred Vail: The Other Morse Code Mastermind

On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse, who is widely credited with inventing Morse code, used his newly invented electromagnetic telegraph to send the first Morse code message from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore to fittingly exclaim, “What hath God wrought?” It was a message suggested to him by the young daughter of a close friend. The message of marvel and wonder was returned promptly and in ditto by Alfred Vail—the lesser known but highly influential and noteworthy coinventor of the electromagnetic telegraph and Morse code.

Born on September 25, 1807, Vail attended public school and worked as a machinist for his father’s company, Speedwell Iron Works. He later pursued a degree in theology at the University of the City of New York (now NY University) with the intent to work as a Presbyterian minister—but, as it would seem, radio was in his blood and the life of a clergyman was not.

It was on campus that Vail first viewed one of Morse’s demonstrations of an early version of the electric telegraph and was irrevocably smitten by its potential. Vail immediately approached Morse and convinced him to take him on as a partner. The two drew up a contract allotting Vail a share of the interest in Morse’s telegraph rights, and in return, Vail was to build telegraph machines and finance the American and foreign patents. Put more succinctly, Vail was to perfect the design of the electromagnetic telegraph and finance a majority of the effort—all while allowing the credit and namesake to go to Morse.

A mechanical genius, 16 years Morse’s junior, Vail adapted virtually every aspect of the design including creating the system of Morse code most people are familiar with today. Morse’s original idea was to use a code book or dictionary to pair each word to a number. It was Vail who invented a simpler system that uses dots, dashes, and spaces to represent letters of the alphabet as a cipher (originally called the Alpha code) for use in long-distance communication.

Vail made countless other changes including but not limited to these:

• Using weights instead of pendulums for the turning key

• Subbing in a steel-pointed pen instead of a pencil to indent the code

  (this also improved the register)

• Altering the battery and recording mechanism

• Using alternate materials for construction

These critically important contributions were, of course, highly influential to the success of the code and telegraph system, but the humble Vail seemed never to worry about any long-lasting acclaim or credit. So, in the way of so many other great minds of history, Vail’s contributions are often overlooked, though inarguably riddled with merit, but still subject to the poor recollection of forgotten history.

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