Samuel Finley Breese Morse.

Samuel F. B. Morse; his letters and journals, ed. and supplemented by his son Edward Lind Morse; (Volume 2) online

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in any of his letters or diaries (and these are volumi-
nous) that he had anything to do with the devising of
this conventional alphabet, even with the modification
of the first form. On the other hand, in several letters to
Morse he refers to it as being Morse's. For instance, in
a letter of April 20, 1848, he uses the words "your sys-
tem of marking, lines and dots, which you have patented."
All the evidence brought forward by the advocates of
Vail is purely hearsay; he is said to have said that he
invented the alphabet.

Morse, however, always, in every one of his many
written references to the matter, speaks of it as "my
conventional alphabet." In an article which I contrib-
uted to the "Century Magazine" of March, 1912, I
treated this question at length and proved by documen-
tary evidence that Morse alone devised the dot-and-
dash alphabet. It will not be necessary for me to repeat
all this evidence here; I shall simply give enough to
prove conclusively that the Morse Alphabet has not
been misnamed.

The following is a fugitive note which was reproduced
photographically in the "Century" article:

"Mr. Vail, in his work on the Telegraph, at p. 32,
intimates that the saw-teeth type for letters, as he has
described them in the diagram (9), were devised by me
as early as the year 1832. Two of the elements of these
letters, indeed, were then devised, the dot and space,


and used in constructing the type for numerals, but, so
far as my recollection now serves me, it was not until
I experimented with the first instrument in 1835 that
I added the dash, which supplied me with the three
elements for combinations for letters. It was on noticing
the fact that, when the circuit was closed a longer time
than was necessary to make a dot, there was produced
a line or dash, that, if I rightly remember, the broken
parts of a continuous line as the means of imprinting at
a distance were suggested to me; since the inequalities
of long and short lines, separated by long and short
spaces, gave me all the variations or combinations of
long and short lines necessary to form the alphabet.
The date of the code complete must, therefore, be put at
1835, and not 1832, although at the date of 1832 the
principle of the code was evolved"

In addition to this being a definite claim in writing on
the part of Morse that he had devised an alphabetic
code in 1835, two years before Vail had ever heard of the
telegraph, it is well to note his scrupulous insistence on
historical accuracy.

In a letter to Professor Gale, referring to reading by
sound as well as by sight, occur the following sentences.
(Let me remark, by the way, that it is interesting to
note that Morse thus early recognized the possibility
of reading by sound, an honor which has been claimed
for many others.)

" Exactly at what time I recognized the adaptation of
the difference in the intervals in reading the letters as
well as the numerals, I have now no means of fixing
except in a general manner. It was, however, almost
immediately on the construction of the letters by dots


and lines, and this was some little time previous to your
seeing the instrument.

" Soon after the first operation of the instrument in
1835, in which the type for writing numbers were used,
I not only conceived the letter type, but made them
from some leads used in the printing-office. I have still
quite a quantity of these type. They were used in Wash-
ington as well as the type for numerals in the winter of

"In the earlier period of the invention it was a matter
which experience alone could determine whether the
numerical system, by means of a numbered dictionary,
or the alphabetic mode, by spelling of the words, was
the better. While I perceived some advantages in the
alphabetic system, especially in the writing of proper
names, I at that time leaned rather towards the nu-
merical mode under the impression that it would, on
the whole, be the more rapid. A very short experience,
however, showed the superiority of the alphabetic mode,
and the big leaves of the numbered dictionary, which
cost me a world of labor, and which you, perhaps, re-
member, were discarded and the alphabetic installed in
its stead."

Perhaps the most conclusive evidence that Vail did
not invent this alphabet is contained in his own book on
the "American Electro-Magnetic Telegraph," published
in 1845, in which he lays claim to certain improvements.
After describing the dot-and-dash alphabet, he says:

"This conventional alphabet was originated on board
the packet Sully by Professor Morse, the very first ele-
ments of the invention, and arose from the necessity of
the case; the motion produced by the magnet being


limited to a single action. During the period of the
thirteen years many plans have been devised by the in-
ventor to bring the telegraphic alphabet to its simplest

The italics are mine, for the advocates of Vail have
always quoted the first sentence only, and have said
that the word "originated" implies that, while Vail
admitted that the embryo of the alphabet the dots
and dashes to represent numbers only was conceived
on the Sully, he did not admit that the alphabetical code
was Morse's. But when we read the second sentence
with the words "devised by the inventor," the meaning
is so plain that it is astonishing that any one at all fa-
miliar with the facts could have been misled.

The first form of the alphabet which was attached
to Morse's caveat of October 3, 1837, is shown in the
drawing of the type in the accompanying figure.

It has been stated by some historians that the system
of signs for letters was not attached to the caveat, but
a careful reading of the text, in which reference is made
to the drawing, will prove conclusively that it was.
Moreover, in this caveat under section 5, "The Dic-
tionary or Vocabulary," the very first sentence reads:
"The dictionary is a complete vocabulary of words
alphabetically arranged and regularly numbered, be-
ginning with the letters of the alphabet." The italics are
mine. The mistake arose because the drawing was de-
tached from the caveat and affixed to the various pat-
ents which were issued, even after the first form of the
alphabet had been superseded by a better one, the prin-
ciple, however, remaining the same, so that it was not
necessary to patent the new form.

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Showing the first form of the alphabet and the changes to the present form


As soon as it was proved that it would be simpler to
use the letters of the alphabet in sending intelligence,
the first form of the alphabet was changed in the man-
ner shown in the preceding figure. Exactly when this
was done has not been recorded, but it was after Vail's
association with Morse, and it is quite possible that they
worked over the problem together, but there is no
written proof of this, whereas the accompanying re-
production of calculations in Morse's handwriting will
prove that he gave himself seriously to its consideration.

The large numbers represent the quantities of type
found in the type-cases of a printing-office; for, after
puzzling over the question of the relative frequency of
the occurrence of the different letters in the written
language, a visit to the printing-office easily settled the

This dispute, concerning the paternity of the alphabet,
lasting for many years after the death of both principals,
and regrettably creating much bad feeling, is typical of
many which arose in the case of the telegraph, as well
as in that of every other great invention, and it may not
be amiss at this point to introduce the following fugi-
tive note of Morse's, which, though evidently written
many years later, is applicable to this as well as to other
cases :

"It is quite common to misapprehend the nature and
extent of an improvement without a thorough knowl-
edge of an original invention. A casual observer is apt
to confound the new and the old, and, in noting a new
arrangement, is often led to consider the whole as new.
It is, therefore, necessary to exercise a proper discrimi-
nation lest injustice be done to the various laborers in


the same field of invention. I trust it will not be deemed
egotistical on my part if, while conscious of the un-
feigned desire to concede to all who are attempting
improvements in the art of telegraphy that which be-
longs to them, I should now and then recognize the
familiar features of my own offspring and claim their


c .

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_ gam


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Calculation made by Morse to aid him in simplifying alphabet


OCTOBER 3, 1837 MAY 16, 1838

The Caveat. Work at Morristown. Judge Vail. First success.
Resolution in Congress regarding telegraphs. Morse's reply. Illness.
Heaviness of first instruments. Successful exhibition in Morristown.
Exhibition in New York University. First use of Morse alphabet.
Change from first form of alphabet to present form. Trials of an inventor.
Dr. Jackson. Slight friction between Morse and Vail. Exhibition at
Franklin Institute, Philadelphia. Exhibitions in Washington. Skepti-
cism of public. F. O. J. Smith. F. L. Pope's estimate of Smith. Pro-
posal for government telegraph. Smith's report. Departure for Europe.

I HAVE incidentally mentioned the caveat in the pre-
ceding chapter, but a more detailed account of this
important step in bringing the invention into the light
of day should, perhaps, be given. The reports in the
newspapers of the activities of others, especially of
scientists in Europe, led Morse to decide that he must
at once take steps legally to protect himself if he did not
wish to be distanced in the race. He accordingly wrote
to the Commissioner of Patents, Henry L. Ellsworth,
who had been a classmate of his at Yale, for information
as to the form to be used in applying for a caveat, and,
after receiving a cordial reply enclosing the required
form, he immediately set to work to prepare his caveat.
This was in the early part of September, 1837, before he
had met Vail. The rough draft, which is still among his
papers, was completed on September 28, and the finished
copy was sent to Washington on October 3, and the
receipt acknowledged by Commissioner Ellsworth on
October 6. The drawing containing the signs for both
numbers and letters was attached to this caveat.
Having now safeguarded himself, he was able to give


his whole mind to the perfecting of the mechanical parts
of his invention, and in this he was ably assisted by his
new partner, Alfred Vail, and by Professor Gale.

The next few months were trying ones to both Morse
and Vail. It must not be supposed that the work went
along smoothly without a hitch. Many were the dis-
couragements, and many experiments were tried and
then discarded. To add to the difficulties, Judge Vail,
who, of course, was supplying the cash, piqued by the
sneers of his neighbors and noting the feverish anxiety
of his son and of Morse, lost faith, and would have
willingly abandoned the whole enterprise. The two
enthusiasts worked steadily on, however, avoiding the
Judge as much as possible, and finally, on the 6th of
January, 1838, they proudly invited him to come to the
workshop and witness the telegraph in operation.

His hopes renewed by their confident demeanor, he
hastened down from his house. After a few words of
explanation he handed a slip of paper to his son on which
he had written the words "A patient waiter is no
loser." He knew that Morse could not possibly know
what he had written, and he said : " If you can send this
and Mr. Morse can read it at the other end, I shall be

Slowly the message was ticked off, and when Morse
handed him the duplicate of his message, his enthusiasm
knew no bounds, and he proposed to go at once to
Washington and urge upon Congress the establishment
of a government line. But the instrument was not yet
in a shape to be seen of all men, and many years were
yet to elapse before the legislators of the country awoke
to their opportunity.


Morse and Vail were, of course, greatly encouraged by
this first triumph, and worked on with increased enthu-

Many years after their early struggles, when the tele-
graph was an established success and Morse had been
honored both at home and abroad, he thus spoke of his
friend :

"Alfred Vail, then a student in the university, and a
young man of great ingenuity, having heard of my in-
vention, came to my rooms and I explained it to him,
and from that moment he has taken the deepest interest
in the Telegraph. Finding that I was unable to com-
mand the means to bring my invention properly before
the public, and believing that he could command those
means through his father and brother, he expressed the
belief to me, and I at once made such an arrangement
with him as to procure the pecuniary means and the
skill of these gentlemen. It is to their joint liberality,
but especially to the attention, and skill, and faith in
the final success of the enterprise maintained by Alfred
Vail, that is due the success of my endeavors to bring the
Telegraph at that time creditably before the public."

The idea of telegraphs seems to have been in the air
in the year 1837, for the House of Representatives had
passed a resolution on the 3d of February, 1837, request-
ing the Secretary of the Treasury, Hon. Levi Woodbury,
to report to the House upon the propriety of establishing
a system of telegraphs for the United States. The term
"telegraph" in those days included semaphores and
other visual appliances, and, in fact, anything by which
intelligence could be transmitted to a distance.

The Secretary issued a circular to "Collectors of


Customs, Commanders of Revenue Cutters, and other
Persons," requesting information. Morse received one
of these circulars, and in reply sent a long account of his
invention. But so hard to convince were the good people
of that day, and so skeptical and even flippant were
most of the members of Congress that six long years
were to elapse, years filled with struggles, discourage-
ments, and heart-breaking disappointments, before the
victory was won.

Morse had still to contend with occasional fits of ill-
ness, for he writes to his brother Sidney from Morris-
town on November 8, 1837:

"You will perhaps be surprised to learn that I came
out here to be sick. I caught a severe cold the day I left
New York from the sudden change of temperature, and
was taken down the next morning with one of my bilious
attacks, which, under other treatment and circum-
stances, might have resulted seriously. But, through
a kind Providence, I have been thrown among most
attentive, and kind, and skilful friends, who have
treated me more like one of their own children than like
a stranger. Mrs. Vail has been a perfect mother to me;
our good Nancy Shepard can alone compare with her.
Through her nursing and constant attention I am now
able to leave my room and have been downstairs to-day,
and hope to be out in a few days. This sickness will, of
course, detain me a while longer than I intended, for
I must finish the portraits before I return."

This refers to portraits of various members of the
Vail family which he had undertaken to execute while
he was in Morristown. Farther on in the letter he


"The machinery for the Telegraph goes forward
daily; slowly but well and thorough. You will be sur-
prised at the strength and quantity of machinery,
greater, doubtless, than will eventually be necessary,
yet it gives the main points, certainty and accuracy."

It may be well to note here that Morse evidently fore-
saw that the machinery constructed by Alfred Vail was
too heavy and cumbersome; that more delicate work-
manship would later be called for, and this proved to
be the case. The iron works at Morristown were only
adapted to the manufacture of heavy machinery for
ships, etc., and Alfred Vail had had experience in that
class of work only, so that he naturally made the tele-
graphic instruments much heavier and more unwieldy
than was necessary. While these answered the purpose
for the time being, they were soon superseded by in-
struments of greater delicacy and infinitely smaller bulk
made by more skilful hands.

The future looked bright to the sanguine inventor in
the early days of the year 1838, as we learn from the
following letter to his brother Sidney, written on the
13th of January :

"Mr. Alfred Vail is just going in to New York and
will return on Monday morning. The machinery is at
length completed and we have shown it to the Morris-
town people with great tclat. It is the talk of all the
people round, and the principal inhabitants of Newark
made a special excursion on Friday to see it. The suc-
cess is complete. We have tried the experiment of send-
ing a pretty full letter, which I set up from the numbers
given me, transmitting through two miles of wire and
deciphered with but a single unimportant error.


"I am staying out to perfect a modification of my
portrule and hope to see you on Tuesday, or, at the
farthest, on Wednesday, when I shall tell you all about
it. The matter looks well now, and I desire to feel grate-
ful to Him who gives success, and be always prepared
for any disappointment which He in infinite wisdom
may have in store."

We see from this letter, and from an account which
appeared in the Morristown "Journal," that in these
exhibitions the messages were sent by numbers with the
aid of the cumbersome dictionary which Morse had
been at such pains to compile. Very soon after this,
however, as will appear from what follows, the diction-
ary was discarded forever, and the Morse alphabet came
into practical use.

The following invitation was sent from the New York
University on January 22, 1838:

"Professor Morse requests the honor of Thomas S.
Cummings, Esq., and family's company in the Geolog-
ical Cabinet of the University, Washington Square, to
witness the operation of the Electro-Magnetic Tele-
graph at a private exhibition of it to a few friends, pre-
vious to its leaving the city for Washington.

"The apparatus will be prepared at precisely twelve
o'clock on Wednesday, 24th instant. The time being
limited punctuality is specially requested."

Similar invitations were sent to other prominent per-
sons and a very select company gathered at the ap-
pointed hour. That the exhibition was a success we
learn from the following account in the "Journal of
Commerce" of January 29, 1838:


" THE TELEGRAPH. We did not witness the opera-
tion of Professor Morse's Electro-Magnetic Telegraph
on Wednesday last, but we learn that the numerous
company of scientific persons who were present pro-
nounced it entirely successful. Intelligence was instan-
taneously transmitted through a circuit of TEN MILES,
and legibly written on a cylinder at the extremity of the
circuit. The great advantages which must result to
the public from this invention will warrant an outlay on
the part of the Government sufficient to test its practi-
cability as a general means of transmitting intelligence.

" Professor Morse has recently improved on his mode
of marking by which he can dispense altogether with
the telegraphic dictionary, using letters instead of num-
bers, and he can transmit ten words per minute, which
is more than double the number which can be trans-
mitted by means of the dictionary."

A charming and rather dramatic incident occurred at
this exhibition which was never forgotten by those who
witnessed it. General Cummings had just been ap-
pointed to a military command, and one of his friends,
with this fact evidently in mind, wrote a message on a
piece of paper and, without showing it to any one else,
handed it to Morse. The assembled company was silent
and only the monotonous clicking of the strange in-
strument was heard as the message was ticked off in the
dots and dashes, and then from the other end of the ten
miles of wire was read out this sentence pregnant with

"Attention, the Universe, by kingdoms right wheel."
The name of the man who indited that message seems


not to have been preserved, but, whoever he was, he
must have been gifted with prophetic vision, and he
must have realized that he was assisting at an occasion
which was destined to mark the beginning of a new era
in civilization. The attention of the universe was, in-
deed, before long attracted to this child of Morse's
brain, and kingdom after kingdom wheeled into line,
vying with each other in admiration and acceptance.

The message was recorded fourfold by means of a
newly invented fountain pen, and was given to General
Cummings and preserved by him. It is here reproduced.

It will be noticed that the signs for the letters are those,
not of the first form of the alphabet as embodied in the
drawing attached to the caveat, but of the finally adopted
code. This has led some historians, notably Mr. Frank-
lin Leonard Pope, to infer that some mistake has been
made in giving out this as a facsimile of this early mes-
sage; that the letters should have been those of the
earlier alphabet. I think, however, that this is but an
added proof that Morse devised the first form of the code
long before he met Vail, and that the changes to the
final form, a description of which I have given, were
made by Morse in 1837, or early in 1838, as soon as he
became convinced of the superiority of the alphabetic
mode, in plenty of time to have been used in this exhi-

The month of January, 1838, was a busy one at
Morristown, for Morse and Vail were bending all their
energies toward the perfecting and completion of the
instruments, so that a demonstration of the telegraph
could be given in Washington at as early a date as
possible. Morse refers feelingly to the trials and anx-

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ieties of an inventor in a letter to a friend, dated Jan-
uary 22, 1838:

"I have just returned from nearly six weeks' absence
at Morristown, New Jersey, where I have been engaged
in the superintendence of the making of my Telegraph
for Washington.

Be thankful, C , that you are not an inventor.

Invention may seem an easy way to fame, or, what is the
same thing to many, notoriety, different as are in reality
the two objects. But it is far otherwise. I, indeed, de-
sire the first, for true fame implies well-deserving, but I
have no wish for the latter, which yet seems inseparable
from it.

"The condition of an inventor is, indeed, not enviable.
I know of but one condition that renders it in any degree
tolerable, and that is the reflection that his fellow-men
may be benefited by his discoveries. In the outset, if
he has really made a discovery, which very word implies
that it was before unknown to the world, he encounters
the incredulity, the opposition, and even the sneers of
many, who look upon him with a kind of pity, as a little
beside himself if not quite mad. And, while maturing
his invention, he has the comfort of reflection, in all
the various discouragements he meets with from petty
failures, that, should he by any means fail in the grand
result, he subjects himself rather to the ridicule than the
sympathy of his acquaintances, who will not be slow in
attributing his failure to a want of that common sense
in which, by implication, they so much abound, and

Online LibrarySamuel Finley Breese MorseSamuel F. B. Morse; his letters and journals, ed. and supplemented by his son Edward Lind Morse; (Volume 2) → online text (page 6 of 41)