Account of development of Telegraph by Alfred Vail

[Trade Journal]

Publication: The Electrician & Electrical Engineer

New York, NY, United States
vol. 6, p. 342-344, col. 1-2




The following interesting account of the early development of the American electro-magnetic telegraph, was written by Alfred Vail, the partner and associate of Prof. Morse, its date, according to his diary, being January 15th, 1848. The manuscript is in his own handwriting throughout, and has never before been printed. The true history of the part taken by Alfred Vail in the invention and development of the invention known to the world as the Morse telegraph, is but faintly indicated in this hasty sketch, and in its entirety is yet to be written. The remarkable abilities and tireless industry of Vail, were only surpassed by his exceeding modesty, and thus it happened that the true greatness of his character was scarcely understood or suspected even by those of his contemporaries, most intimately associated with him in the ordinary concerns of life. The telegraph of modern times, though bearing the name of Morse and unquestionably suggested by his original conception, contains in its essential features scarcely a trace of Morse's work. It is in fact as it stands to day, an invention of Prof. Joseph Henry, adapted to commercial uses by Alfred Vail. — [ED.]

SOMETIME during the early part of the year 1837, having called at Professor Morse's studio (it was my habit to make him occasional visits, being a student of the University of the City of New York of which he was a professor, having had a previous acquaintance of some one or two years boarding at the same house), during a conversation with him he told me that he was about to bring out a new and important discovery which would make some noise in the world. I expressed a wish to see it, and he replied that he would apprise me and send me an invitation. My mind became deeply impressed with what Professor Morse had stated, and I called upon him the more frequently afterwards, but do not now recollect that anything further was said about the invention.

However, it so happened that on one of these occasional visits, prior to September 4th, 1837, I accidentally, without invitation, called upon him at the University and found Professor Torrey and Professor Daubeney in the mineralogical cabinet and lecture room of Professor Gale in the University, where Professor Horse was exhibiting to these gentlemen an apparatus which he called his "electro-magnetic telegraph."Ή

There were wires suspended in the room, running from one end to the other and returning many times, making in all 1,700 feet. The two ends of this wire were connected with an electro-magnet fastened to a vertical wooden frame. In front of the magnet was its armature and also a wooden lever, or arm, titled to hold at its extremity a lead pencil. This lever was supported upon an axis which permitted it to work freely. There was also a spring connected with the lever to carry the armature from the magnet when the wires were broken (separated) at the ends. To these vertical supports were also fixed a train of wheels, similar to those of a wooden clock, which with rollers drew off a strip of paper wound round a pulley by means of a weight. This paper passed over a roller directly under the point of the lead pencil in the end of the armature lever. The magnet and lever were so placed in the vertical frame that the movement of the pencil, always touching the paper, was across it and not parallel with its length.

There was another apparatus made of two long flat pieces of wood, so fastened together by their sides that the space between them would admit of pieces of metallic plates of type-metal, some of which were thick spaces, commonly used by printers for spacing lines, and had notches in them. There were others also which appeared to be cast. These types with their notches and spaces were used for breaking the circuit by raising the wire out of a cup of mercury and thus letting the battery into action or taking it out, producing magnetism in the electromagnet and then divesting it of magnetism.

This instrument I saw work and produce that peculiar kind of marking which appears like the letter V or W, and described, page 75, in the work on the American electro-magnetic telegraph.²

I became thoroughly acquainted with the principles of its operation and I may say struck with the rude machine, containing, as I verily believed, the germ of what was destined to produce great changes in the condition and relations of man. I well recollect the impression it then made upon my mind. I rejoiced to think that I lived in such a day, and my mind contemplated the future in which so grand and mighty an agent was about to be introduced for the benefit of the world. Before leaving the room in which I beheld for the first time this magnificent invention, I asked Professor Morse if he designed to make an experiment on a more extended line of conductors. He replied that he did so intend, but desired assistance to carry out his plans. I then promised him assistance for a share in the invention, to which he assented. I then returned to my boarding house, locked the room door and threw myself upon the bed, and gave myself up to the reflection of the mighty results which were to follow the introduction of a new agent in meeting and serving the wants of the world. With the atlas in my hand I traced the most important lines that would certainly be erected in the United States, and calculated their length. The question arose in my mind whether the magnet could be made to work through great lengths, and after much reflection I came to the conclusion that, provided the magnet would work at a distance of eight or ten miles, there was no risk in embarking in the enterprise. And upon this I decided in my own mind to sink or swim with it.

An agreement was soon thereafter entered into, dated 23d September, 1837, in which for certain considerations and services a certain interest in the invention was to be made over to me. And upon the execution of these papers, Professor Morse and myself left the city for the Speedwell Iron Works³ for the purpose of constructing suitable instruments for exhibition before the members of Congress. Immediately was the work set about. Ten miles of copper wire and a quantity of ribbon wire were ordered. The frame, wheels and drums of the register instrument were made, for then it was designed to put a sheet of paper upon a drum which slid upon a square bar of cast steel about 18 inches long. This drum had a single spiral on one end made of steel plate which projected beyond the surface of the drum. Between each drum there was a long brass bar containing teeth of the same gradation as the spiral and into which the spiral worked, so that at every revolution of the drum it would move on the steel bar the distance of one spiral on the end of the drum. The drums were placed horizontally and side by side, and the machinery was so constructed that when the paper of one drum was entirely filled with the markings of the pen it could be stopped and the other cylinder commence its movement. The pen was placed midway between each end of the steel shaft, whose length was nearly twice that of the drum.

This machine was never entirely completed as it was thought to be too cumbersome, and also on account of a better mode having been devised, so as to dispense with one of the drums. This improvement consisted of a single drum about three inches in diameter which opened through its centre. When it was designed to put paper on these two half drums the paper was inserted into a clasp on the side of each half drum, which shut down, holding the paper fast. The two half drums were then taken, one in each hand, and placed on the square cast-steel shaft, and when brought together a catch secured both half drums together and drew the paper tight to the outer surface of the drum. When on the shaft, the spiral on the end of the drum moves in a toothed rack below, and thus carries the paper along, making a sort of spiral written line on the paper. When one drum was about to be filled another was put on the shaft, and by a peculiar catch fastened to the one before it until the first was entirely filled, when it was taken off, the paper removed and new paper put on. There were two machines of this kind.

Dr. Gale, in the meantime, was engaged in superintending the construction of two batteries of the Cruikshank kind, of 60 plates, each 6 inches square.

During the construction of the register and magnets there was also constructed a machine for holding the type in convenient rules about three feet long, called port-rules, and also apparatus for carrying it along at an equal speed, so as to close and break the circuit.

There was also another instrument made for changing the poles of the electro-magnet, so that the current should pass through the helices of the magnet, first in one direction and then in another, the object of which was to counteract the effects of permanent magnetism which it was apprehended would increase to such a degree, from long use of the current in one direction, as to destroy its electro-magnetism by producing permanent magnetism. It was, however, found, after a short trial without it, that it was useless and could be dispensed with.

During the time these things were in progress it was a common question with those who visited the works to see our progress, and with whom we met at other places, how far the current could be transmitted through a length of wire. This question was always answered by Professor Morse and myself, that if the current would traverse the wire but ten miles it could be used for a hundred or more.

So clear was it to my own mind and so well did I understand Professor Morse's ideas upon the subject, that we were fully persuaded of its necessity, and so spoke to each other. It became a part of his plan and one supposed to be indispensable, since believing that the current would diminish in power as the distance increased, it was admitted by him that although such an instrument might not be required for twenty or thirty miles or more, yet nevertheless it would be necessary to use it at the end of a line of such length as should reduce the current down to a very feeble power. The construction of such an instrument as the relay magnet was not deemed at the time as necessary for the object in view, and its construction was therefore delayed until it was required by a more extended experiment. The design was to try the instruments with a coil of wire of ten miles and with such a battery as should work the magnet through the whole ten miles without a relay or receiving magnet. Had Professor Morse stopped short of this, the plan of making a suitable exhibition before Congress would not have been complete. The object of using ten miles at least was, that the new discovery might satisfactorily demonstrate that the current could be transmitted through ten miles of wire, and at that extremity be made to operate an electro-magnet, since visual telegraphs are usually at that distance apart, and were Professor Morse's plan capable of working at no greater distance it had this superiority over the semaphore, that it could be worked during the night and during fogs, rains, or any kind of weather.

These preparations having been completed at Speedwell Iron Works, the two instruments were put up in a vacant room connected with the works, and exhibited to the ladies and gentlemen of Morristown. On this occasion only two miles of wire were used, the remaining portion of eight miles not having been brought out from the city. A few days after this exhibition the instruments were taken to the City of New York and set up in the mineralogical lecture room of the University. Here three days of exhibition were given to invited ladies and gentlemen. The instruments were worked through ten miles of wire.4 At this time the pencil was used for marking the paper fastened on the cylinders, as previously stated. After this exhibition the instruments were taken to Philadelphia and by invitation exhibited in the great hall of the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia. After a stay of a few days at Philadelphia the instruments were taken to Washington and set up in the room of the Committee on Commerce,5 where they were exhibited for several weeks to members of Congress, President Martin Van Buren and his Cabinet (among whom was the Hon. Amos Kendall, the present agent for three-fourths of the patent interest), and also to such persons as were desirous of seeing the invention.

On the — of April, Professor Morse, Hon. F. O. J. Smith and myself set out for the north, the two former with the intention of preparing to sail at an early day for Europe, and myself to Speedwell Iron Works to prepare suitable instruments for them to take with them, in order to secure patents in European countries. On my arrival at Speedwell two instruments were commenced on a different plan from that so recently exhibited at Washington. The paper was to be ribbon-paper and the pens to hold ink instead of using the pencil as in the former case. New devices were also made for the port-rule, one of which was a groove in which the punctured type were to slide down an inclined plane until they came in contact with a brass wheel surrounded with small wire projections that matched the holes in the type. This wheel was driven by clockwork and gave a uniform motion to the type. Another plan was that in which the type were to descend vertically in contact with the wheel, as described in figure 17 in the "Description." The pen was made by taking a piece of plate brass about the 1-16 and 1/2 thick and 3/4 of an inch long and 1/2 inch [spell:broadboard], slitting the plate into two plates for about half its width with a saw 1/16 or less in thickness, and then sawing with a fine saw at right angles the opposite edge in four equally distant places until the cut reached the parallel division. The spaces were filed to a point so as to form pen points, and the wider saw-cut was then stopped at its two ends so as to form a reservoir for the ink. This, soldered to the end of the magnet lever, was used as a pen for making four dots or lines on paper instead of a pencil as in the former case. The paper was made to pass over a cylinder directly under the pen, so as to make the proper marks. The paper was driven by a clock train as in the other cases.

An alteration to some portions of the instruments was made in New York by Professor Morse after they left the Speedwell works, and on the 16th of May, Professor Morse and Hon. F. O. J. Smith sailed for England for the purpose of securing patents in Europe. Their first visit was to England, afterwards to France, and then back to England. During their stay in France they took out a patent for the electro-magnetic telegraph for the transmission of intelligence and also its application to railroads. Professor Morse also entered into a contract with the Russian minister at Paris for the construction of lines in Russia, and which required the approval of the Emperor to make it good. He also commissioned an agent traveling through various European countries to effect any arrangement which might be made for its introduction. He returned to England, and the fate which his application for a patent there met with is stated at large in a paper written by Professor Morse respecting Sir John Campbell.

On his return to America he applied himself occasionally to perfecting his invention, and as I occasionally called upon him at his office I was made acquainted with his improvements. He was also engaged at this time with the new discovery of Daguerre.6 One of his improvements (so considered at that time) was the correspondent for the purpose of transmission by means of separate keys for each letter of the alphabet, by which he could, on pressing down a key, wind up a weight over a pulley, then releasing his finger from the key, the type for breaking and closing the circuit representing a letter would slowly return to its former position, producing the required marks and spaces for making the letter. He was also much engaged in producing some mode of marking, better suited to the purpose of marking on paper than lead pencils or pens supplied with ink. In this his modes were numerous, such as marking upon metallic plates, upon different kinds of prepared paper. All these were in turn thrown aside for some better device.

Being called upon by the American Institute to make an exhibition of his invention before them, Professor Morse prepared two instruments which were put up and exhibited at the Fair in the fall of 1842.

1. The original instrument which Mr. Vail saw on this occasion Is preserved In the office of the Western Union Telegraph Co., at 195 Broadway, New York. An engraving and description of it is in Reid's Telegraph in America, pp. 54, 55.— [ED.]

2. Vail's American Electro-Magnetic Telegraph, Philadelphia, 1845. — [ED.]

3. These works are near Morristown. N. J.. and were at that time owned by Judge Stephen Vail (the father of Alfred) and his son George Vail. — [ED.]

4. This was on January 4, 1888.— [ED.]

5. The wire waa placed on two reels of five miles each. In the Capitol were used numbers entirely and a dictionary.

6. This discovery was the well-known daguerreotype process, of which all the modern photographic processes are the outgrowth. — [ED.]


Keywords:Morse : Telegraph
Researcher notes: 
Supplemental information: 
Researcher:Elton Gish
Date completed:January 23, 2011 by: Bob Stahr;