Although Samuel F.B. Morse’s legacy might overshadow Alfred Vail’s, the telegraph inventor’s assistant was not a total unknown in his day. He was prominent enough, at least, to have attracted some peculiar hangers-on. I found evidence of this colorful “following” in the Vail Telegraph Collection, Record Unit 7055, bound together in a volume of correspondence alongside telegraph accounts and other administrative materials.
The letter in question is not so mundane. Writing in June of 1846, its author, a resident of Washington D.C. named John M. McFarland, asks for Vail’s help in completing a gift for his mother. “I think I can do her some good,” John writes.
What exactly does he need for his gift? “Please send me by the bearer of this note,” McFarland begins, “100 feet or more, [sic] of wrapped copper wire if you have it to spare.” It turns out that John is working on a device for his mother—or, rather, to use on his mother. “I have a poor weakly Mother, who is always complaining,” explains John. The wire will complete his “Electro Magnetic apparatus for the purpose of giving a Shock.” Again, to his mother.
John has even planned out the design of his magnet, enclosing a sketch for Vail’s approval. All he needs now is the hundred feet of wire, preferably “not varnished” and slimmer than “1/10 of an inch when wrapped,” and he will be well-equipped to cure his mother. (Not that John will be able to reimburse Vail--“i am not very rich,” he clarifies, “or else i would buy it of you [sic].”)
Did Alfred Vail oblige John M. McFarland’s request? Unfortunately, the volume of correspondence does not include a response. For the sake of John’s mother, let’s hope that Vail could not spare the wire.
“Washington City DC June 17th 1846
Sir, Please send me by the bearer of
this note, 100 feet or more, of wrapped copper wire if
you have it to spare, not exceeding 1/10 of an inch
when wrapped. in diameter, if it is not varnished
it will answer better, i want it to make an
Electro Magnetic apparatus for the purpose of giving
a Shock, please give me as much as you can spare
i am not very rich, or else i would buy it of you,
but i have a poor weakly Mother, who is always
complaining. i think i can do her some good if i can
get the wire, so please give it to me if you can, and you will
greatly oblige me
Yours, Very, Respectfully
John, M, McFarland.”