At that demonstration was the young Alfred Vail, who became so interested in the device that he offered to help Morse improve it. They set up shop in space at Vail's father's iron works. The archives of Vail's documents indicate that Morse was not really an active participant in the re-engineering of the device, Vail did most of that work. Also, Vail decided to take a different approach than Morse's original code. Morse's code consisted of only numerals. Words were encoded as numbers, sent over the line, and had to be decoded from a "dictionary", which listed the numbers in order along with the word corresponding to that number. Imagine if we, ham radio operators, still had to send CW like that! Vail, with help from an assistant, first derived the frequency of use of each letter in the English alphabet by counting them in newspapers. He then developed the now familiar system of dots and dashes, giving the more frequent letters the shortest codes. Thus, the most frequent letter, 'e', is simply a single dot or dit.
|Telegraph key made by Alfred Vail|
The final problem, how to send the signal over distances longer than a few hundred feet, had eluded both Morse and Vail during this time. The distance was limited because they were using a single battery. Enter another forgotten contributor to the modern telegraph, Leonard Gale, a local chemistry professor, who gave them the idea of using multiple batteries and relays to extend the range. With that accomplishment, they were ready for the first public demonstration in one of the iron works buildings through which they had managed to string 3 Km of wire. That's where that first message was sent, a message that for Vail's near future seems prophetic in hindsight.
There were still years to go before the telegraph in the U.S. was to achieve real success. Eventually, their company received a $30,000 grant from Congress to create a 61 Km line between Baltimore, MD and Washington, D.C. In 1844 that line was completed and that's when Morse sent the more well-known "first" telegraph message, "What Hath God Wrought?". After this point the implementation of lines started to take off. Morse, not Vail, though, was to profit the most from their joint invention.
During early negotiations between Morse and Vail's family, which put up the money for development, Morse had negotiated all rights to the invention giving Vail only 25% of future profits. Vail later took on a partner thus diluting his shares to half that. Despite being heavily involved in the early development and managing the contracts to put up telegraph lines, Vail became disillusioned with the company, thinking that his work was unappreciated (they were only paying him $900 per year). He perhaps was further perturbed that the 1844 U.S. Patent for the telegraph bore only the name of Samuel Morse, but that's strictly speculation on my part. In any case, by 1848 Vail had resigned from telegraphy and pursued genealogy as a career. He had already sold the shares he'd retained before the real boom in telegraphy started. So, the impatient waiter did indeed became a loser. He died in 1859 at the age of 51. Think well of Vail tomorrow on Samuel Morse's birthday and the next time you send or listen to "Morse" code, imagine the joy Vail's spirit feels at the sound of it.