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Morse Code or Vail Code?

Did Samuel F. B. Morse Invent the Code as We Know it Today?

Franklin Pope and William Baxter give some answers

by Neal McEwen, K5RW

Copyright © 1997, Neal McEwen

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The invention of the Morse code is generally attributed to Samuel F. B. Morse. Have we been mislead by historians? Have historians overlooked important documents? Or have historians just not shared all the facts with us? The following quote is taken from an article in "The Century: Illustrated Monthly Magazine", April, 1888, by Franklin Pope, titled "The American Inventors of the Telegraph, with special references to the services of Alfred Vail". The article is quite lengthily and comprehensive and is recommended reading for anyone interested in early telegraph history. "The Century" was a popular periodical of the era and should be available at larger libraries and book dealers. In case you haven't the time or inclination to get the whole article, I have quoted the most relevant part below.

Before jumping in, let's set the stage and see who the players are. Franklin Pope was a telegraph inventor, entrepreneur and writer. He may be best known for his partnership with Thomas Edison in the telegraph services business in the early 1870s. Alfred Vail was one of Samuel Morse's partners and contributor in the development of the telegraph. William Baxter was Vail's laboratory assistant at the Speedwell Iron Works where early developments were made.

Quoting from Pope's article:

It is also important to remember that the code of conventional signals which had been devised by Morse, and which, in connection with his machine, he proposed to use for the transmission of intelligence, were numerical and not alphabetical. According to his scheme, a specially prepared dictionary was required in which every word in the English language was represented by an arbitrary number. A separate type represented each numeral, having a corresponding number of projections or teeth. We reproduce a specimen of telegraphic writing by this numerical code. Numerical Code specimen The numbers refer to words in the telegraphic dictionary. They are translated by counting the points at the bottom of the line, and then, by referring to the dictionary, the corresponding words are found and the communication translated.

The construction of the machines referred to by Mr. Baxter was begun early in September, 1837, immediately after the partnership between Morse and Vail had been determined upon. Meanwhile, Morse remained in New York, engaged in the preparation of his caveat. This document was subscribed by him on the third day of October, i837, and from it we may learn precisely of what his invention then consisted. He enumerates the essential parts of his apparatus as follows:

"First, a system of signs, by which numbers, and consequently words and sentences, are signified; second, a set of type, adapted to regulate and communicate the signs, with rules in which to set up the type; third, an apparatus called the port-rule, for regulating the movement of the type-rules, which rules, by means of the type, in their turn regulate the times and intervals of the passage of electricity; fourth, a register, which records the signs permanently; fifth, a dictionary, or vocabulary of words, numbered and adapted to this system of telegraph; sixth, modes of laying conductors to preserve them from injury."

This, then, was Morse's telegraph, as it existed in October, 1837. It was the first apparatus to record simple numerical signs at a distance by electricity. Writing as late as 1867, and giving what may be regarded as his own mature opinion of his work, Morse claims, and with justice, to be the first inventor of a recording or printing telegraph, as distinguished from a semaphore, giving only evanescent signs, either visual, as in the apparatus of Schilling and others, or acoustic, as in the apparatus of Henry. He inquires:

"What else was necessary to be added to the catalogue of facts known in 1832 to construct a telegraph ? One other fact only was wanting, and that was a system of signs adapted to the capabilities of the mechanism for printing at a distance; and this system of signs I invented in 1832, and adding to it the inventory of known facts successfully combined them to produce the telegraph."

But, as we shall hereafter see, the telegraph invented by Morse in 1832, and described in his caveat of 1837, has nothing in common with the essentials of the modern system of telegraphy which is known in the United States as Morse's; nor is the code of alphabetical signs now universally used in telegraphy throughout the world the same, either in principle, or in construction, as that of the caveat.

As soon as the caveat had been safely lodged in the Patent Office, Morse began the preparation of a dictionary. October 24, he writes to Vail:

The dictionary is at last done. You cannot conceive how much labor there has been, but it is accomplished, and we can now talk or write anything by numbers. . . .

The spark passes freely as yet three and a half miles, and magnetizes well at that distance, though evidently with diminished strength, which would seem to indicate that there is a limit somewhere. We have just heard that Professor Wheatstone has tried an experiment with his method - twenty miles - with success ; we have, therefore, nothing to fear.

On the 29th, Morse went to Speedwell for a few days, partly to observe the progress of the new machinery, and partly with the intention of painting the portraits of the members of Judge Vail's household, in fulfillment of a commission which had been given him as a delicate and considerate manner of relieving his pressing pecuniary necessities. After his return to New York, he wrote to Vail, November 13:

You will be gratified and agreeably surprised when I inform you that the result now is, that, with a little addition of wire to the coil of the small magnet which I bad all along used, the power was as great apparently through ten as through three miles. The result has surprised us; and yet there is no mistake, and, I conceive, settles the whole matter.

Meanwhile Alfred Vail and his young assistant, William Baxter, were engaged night and day in pushing forward the construction of the new machinery. Writing of this period, Mr. Baxter says:

Alfred was singularly modest and unassuming, while Professor Morse was very much inclined to insist on the superiority of his own plans and methods - if for no other reason; because they were his own. As we all looked upon him with the respect due to a professor, we were at first quite willing to defer submissively to his dicta. It resulted from this, that the first machine which was constructed at Speedwell was substantially a copy of the original model, although constructed of metal, in a more symmetrical and practical form.

As we became acquainted with Morse it became evident to us that his mechanical knowledge and skill were limited, and his ideas in matters relating to construction of little value. As the weak points in the apparatus were one after another developed, Alfred began to draw upon the resources of his own wonderful power of invention in substituting practical and commercially valuable mechanical combinations for the more or less impracticable designs of Morse.

We found, for example, that the pencil of the recording apparatus frequently required repointing, and that when freshly sharpened it made a different mark from that made by a worn point, which tended to render the record obscure and difficult to decipher. Alfred contrived a fountain pen that made a uniform line. This device, however, was not satisfactory to him, as it threw the ink in all directions when jerked by the sudden action of the magnet, and he spent some time in diligent study in the endeavor to devise a remedy.

He was a mechanical draughtsman of surpassing skill, as is fully attested by some of his work still in possession of his family. He brought to me one day, after working for an hour at his drawing table , a sketch of a new marking device, in which a vertical motion was given to the lever instead of the transverse movement which had hitherto been employed. We constructed the new lever, and thus for the first time produced a register capable of making dots, dashes, and spaces.

Alfred's brain was at this time working at high pressure, and evolving new ideas every day. He saw in these new characters the elements of an alphabetical code by which language could be telegraphically transmitted in actual words and sentences, and he instantly set himself at work to construct such a code. His general plan was to employ the simplest and shortest combinations to represent the most frequently recurring letters of the English alphabet, and the remainder for the more infrequent ones. For instance, he found upon investigation that the letter e occurs much more frequently than any other letter, and accordingly he assigned to it the shortest symbol, a single dot(.). On the other hand, j, which occurs infrequently, is expressed by dash-dot-dash-dot (-.-.) After going through a computation, in order to ascertain the relative frequency of the occurrence of different letters in the English alphabet, Alfred was seized with sudden inspiration, and visited the office of the Morristown local newspaper, where be found the whole problem worked out for him in the type cases of the compositor.

In this statement I have given the true origin of the misnamed " Morse " alphabet the very foundation and corner-stone of a new system, which has, since become the universal telegraphic language of the world."

Karen Weiss, a professional researcher based in Washington D.C., found this article and sent it to me. I am much indebted to her. I think you would agree that this is a significant document. Are Pope and Baxter entirely correct?  Did they have some personal agenda? We may never know. I tend to believe that "where there is smoke, there is fire." Will history be re-written? Probably not.

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Neal McEwen,