Finding Aids to Personal Papers and Special Collections in the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 7055
Vail Telegraph Collection, 1830-1898, 1912-1917
Alfred Vail (1807-1859) was born in Morristown, New Jersey, where his father was owner of the Speedwell Iron Works. After working in his father's shop and preparing for the Presbyterian ministry, Alfred became interested in Samuel F. B. Morse and his telegraph. In 1837 a contract was drawn between Vail and Morse whereby Vail would construct a complete set of instruments and secure U. S. and foreign patents for them at his expense, in return for one-fourth interest in the American rights and one-half interest in the patents secured abroad. Stephen and George Vail (Alfred's father and brother) invested. Alfred, Morse, and Leonard D. Gale worked in the Speedwell shops and on January 6, 1838, demonstrated the improved telegraph. Some sources give Alfred Vail the major credit for the perfection of the instruments. Congress did not purchase the telegraph as they had hoped, but Congressman Francis O. J. Smith became a partner with 4/16 interest; subsequently, friction developed between Smith and others in the telegraph enterprise. On the capital completed by Smith's contribution, Morse went to Europe to establish the enterprise there, and Alfred lost interest; from 1839-1843, Alfred conducted his father's business in Philadelphia. In 1843, when Congress passed the act to build the Washington-Baltimore line, Vail became Morse's chief assistant and stayed with Morse until 1845, but then was relieved from duty in Washington by Morse, and by 1848 resigned as superintendent in Philadelphia. In 1845, Alfred published The Electro Magnetic Telegraph and in 1849, The Register of the Electro Magnetic Telegraph Companies. After 1848, Vail's interest in the telegraph was mostly passive. He realized little money from his interest in the telegraph and died poor in 1859.
This collection contains papers concerning the invention and development of the telegraph by Samuel F. B. Morse, Alfred Vail, and others, especially Vail's work with telegraph instruments and operation of telegraph stations, patent litigation, and Vail's publications concerning the telegraph; correspondence between Alfred and George Vail concerning their investment in the early telegraph enterprise; correspondence between Alfred Vail, Morse, Amos Kendall, and others, from 1837, relating to development of the telegraph; litigation and patents; administration of companies, especially the Magnetic Telegraph Company; the Morse-Joseph Henry dispute and litigation between Morse, Francis O. J. Smith, and Henry O'Reilly; correspondence between Alfred Vail and many persons concerning construction of lines and training of operators (especially valuable is that concerning construction of the Washington-Baltimore line); some Alfred Vail research notes and correspondence relating to insulation and insulators, receiving magnets and keys, and laying line in lead pipe; account books, copies of contracts, agreements and assignments, and patent applications; extensive telegraph journals; data accumulated by Alfred Vail concerning rates and telegraph lines; correspondence, returned questionnaires, and other items relating to Vail's publications, especially The Electro Magnetic Telegraph and The Telegraph Register of the Electro-magnetic Telegraph Companies in the United States and the Canadas; scrapbooks kept by Alfred Vail and his wife Amanda relating to the history of the telegraph; and correspondence of Amanda Vail after Alfred's death, relating to his role in telegraph development.
Some items cannot be reproduced due to bindings.
This collection is indexed under the following access terms. These are links to collections with related topics, persons or places.
- Vail, Alfred, 1807-1859
- Vail, George, 1809-1875
- Vail, Amanda, d. 1894
- Vail, Stephen, 1780-1864
- Vail, James Cummings
- Morse, Samuel Finley Breese, 1791-1872
- Kendall, Amos, 1789-1869
- Henry, Joseph, 1797-1878
- Smith, Francis O. J. (Francis Ormond Jonathan), 1806-1876
- O'Reilly, Henry, 1806-1886
- Magnetic Telegraph Company
- United States National Museum
- The Telegraph Register of the Electro-magnetic Telegraph Companies in the United States and the Canadas (Monograph : 1849)
- The Electro-Magnetic Telegraph (Monograph)
Physical Characteristics of Materials in the Collection
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7055, Vail Telegraph Collection