Documents, Manuscripts, Maps, & Photographs
Manuscript Group 50, Alfred Vail (1807-1859), Inventor Papers, 1826-1918, 1.5 linear feet / 3 boxes
Call Number: MG 50 + Box and folder number
Diary, 1826-1829, 1850-1858; nine essays on religion and human behavior, ca. 1831-1836; correspondence; Vail family genealogy; transcriptions of the Alfred Vail manuscripts in the Smithsonian Institution; and Samuel F. B. Morse's patent for the electric telegraph, 1848. Vail worked with Samuel F. B. Morse from 1837 on development of the electric telegraph at the Speedwell Iron Works in Morristown, New Jersey, which his father, Stephen Vail, owned and operated.
Gift of Sarah Tempe Leddel Davis; William Penn Vail, 1948; A.A. Marsters, 1922; and J. Cummings Vail, 1913.
Alfred Vail, a co-inventor of the telegraph, was born in Morristown, New Jersey on September 25, 1807 to Bethiah Youngs (1778-1847) and Stephen Vail (1780-1864). After attending public schools, Alfred Vail became a machinist at Speedwell Iron Works in Morristown, New Jersey, a lucrative iron company owned by his father. In 1832, however, he entered the University of the City of New York (now New York University) as a theology student, and graduated in 1836. On September 2, 1837, while still at the university, he witnessed one of Professor Samuel F. B. Morseís (1791-1872) first telegraph experiments and became strongly interested in the project. By September 23, he had formed a partnership with Morse which required him to construct a set of telegraph instruments at his own cost and to secure their patents in the United States and abroad in return for ľ of the interest in the patents.
With his fatherís financial backing, Vail went to work on the telegraph in the machine shops of Speedwell Iron Works where he created the crucial dot-dash mechanism and means of communication that became known as "Morse Code." On January 6, 1838, the first successful experiment of the equipment took place over three miles of wire running around the machine shops at Speedwell. The message read, "A patient waiter is no loser." Within the next two months, successful demonstrations of the invention were held in New York City, at Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, and before Congress. After the latter, Morse and Vail gained another backer, Congressman Frances O. J. Smith, leaving Vailís share in the telegraph at ⅛ of the total interest. It wasnít until 1843, however, that Congress appropriated money to build a line between Baltimore and Washington D.C., and on May 24, 1844, a message reading, "What Hath God Wrought!" was sent between Vail in one city and Morse in the other. For the next four years Vail continued working with Morse in Philadelphia. He retired in 1848 and moved with his family back to Morristown, New Jersey where he spent the remaining ten years of his life researching Vail family genealogy.
Alfred Vail married Jane Elizabeth Cummings (1817-1852) on July 23, 1839. They had three sons together: Stephen (1840-1909), James Cummings (1843-1917), and George Rochester (1852-1931). After Elizabeth Vailís death, Alfred married Amanda O. Eno. Alfred Vail died on January 18, 1859, after which his son, Stephen, donated the original 1838 telegraph his father had created to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian also holds Alfred Vail papers in its collections.
Malone, Dumas, ed. Dictionary of American Biography (Charles Scribnerís Sons: New York, 1936), Volume XIX, Troye-Wentworth.
Vail, William Penn. Genealogy of Some of the Vail Family Descended from Thomas Vail at Salem, Massachusetts 1640 Together with Collateral Lines (published 1937).
This collection was created from a number of different donations. The sample telegraphic alphabet was donated by Sarah Tempe Leddel Davis. The majority of S. Ward Righterís research was donated by William Penn Vail of Blairstown, New Jersey in May 1948 (accession M2807-M2809). William Penn Vail received Righterís research papers in 1948 from Mary (Wilson) Vail, the widow of Cyrus Hamlin Vail, who received them from Righterís wife in 1945. The second copy of Righterís transcription of Vailís papers at the Smithsonian was donated by A. A. Marsters in 1922 (accession M1735-M1736). Finally, a number of printed pamphlets were donated by J. Cummings Vail, Alfred Vailís son, in June 1913. A number of the papers were originally placed in Manuscript Group 1, Alphabetical Series and cataloged under the numbers D: 234-237. In 1956, these items were moved to Manuscript Group 50.
This collection consists of three boxes of diaries and theological essays of Alfred Vail; research on Vail family genealogy and a typescript by S. W. Righter representing selective transcripts of those Alfred Vail papers held in the Smithsonian Institution; and a printed patent for the first electro-magnetic telegraph issued to Samuel F. B. Morse. The collection documents Vailís life before entering the City University of New York and the years subsequent to his active participation in the telegraph business. It also contains materials on the controversy of the invention of the telegraph and the telegraphic code. The papers have been arranged into the following series: Literary Productions, Research Papers, Correspondence, Printed Material, and Miscellaneous.
Series I. Literary Productions, 1826-1858.
This series consists of diaries covering the years 1826-1829 and 1850-1858, as well as essays from 1831-1836. The diaries document the everyday activities of Mr. Vail, family relations, and major events in his life, although unfortunately, there is not much information related to his relationship with Morse or telegraphy. Alfred Vail as he is presented in his diaries is a very private and religious person. Religion is especially prominent in his early diaries which feature extended discussions of religious subjects and theological problems. Daily entries for his later years deal almost exclusively with his family life Ė the birth of his children, the death of his wife, and his poor health.
The essays of Alfred Vail written during his years of theological studies offer insight into 19th century theological discourse.
Series II. Research Papers, 1900-1913.
This series consists of genealogical research gathered by S. Ward Righter from 1900-1913 from Alfred Vailís own research. The information was used for Righterís book Alfred Vail Records and also for William Penn Vailís Genealogy of Some of the Descendants of Thomas Vail (cited above under Biographical Note Sources), both of which are held in The New Jersey Historical Societyís collections. The materials gathered support Righterís belief that Vail actually invented the telegraph. Among this material are two copies of transcriptions of Vail documents in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution.
Series III. Correspondence, 1837-1912.
This series consists of letters of Alfred Vail and various individuals of the Vail family pertaining mostly to the Morse-Vail controversy. The majority of items are copies, except for the letters of condolence upon the death of Alfred Vail addressed to his wife.
Series IV. Printed Material, 1848-ca. 1912.
The printed materials include documents pertaining to the Vail family, as well as publications on the Morse-Vail dispute over the invention of the telegraph. Morseís patent for the telegraph is also among the documents of this series.
Series V. Miscellaneous, n.d.
This series consists of two items: a sample of the first telegraphic alphabet and a piece of stationary depicting Vail and Morse. The alphabet sample was produced on the original machine at Speedwell by Alfred Vail for Mrs. L. C. Dayton.
Processed by Irina Peris, April 2000 as part of the "Farm to City" project funded by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.
The New Jersey Historical Society