The Vail Code??

Samuel F.B. Morse, for whom the Morse Code is named was born 214 years ago today. But we should perhaps be calling it the Vail Code instead, as Craig W3CRR recently pointed out on the ARRL’s PR Mailing List:

Curiously, Samuel F.B. Morse didn’t actually invent the “Morse” code. Alfred Vail did. Morse’s original idea was to assign discrete number codes to hundreds of commonly used words. Vail, after witnessing a telegraphy demonstration by Morse, befriended Samuel and worked out the far more practical code system whereby each letter of the alphabet is represented by a series of long and short closings of a switch (which became the famous Vail Correspondent telegraph key). The complexity of each letter’s code was determined in part by its frequency of use in written communications — which is why “e”, the most commonly used letter, is represented by a single “dit”.

So, actually, we should call our code the “Vail Code”.Vail, however, was generous and modest enough to allow Morse — who publicized his technology (greatly enhanced by Vail) and Vail’s Code — to take the credit. Vail did share in the considerable profits of their joint venture, though.

My source for this information is a wonderful book entitled “Signor Marconi’s Magic Box” by British journalist Gavin Weightman. It was published by Da Capo Press in 2003. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of wireless communications.


  1. Cecilia Vail Hampton says:

    Thank you so much for the staunch defense made here for the Vail Code and Vail correspondent telegraph key. The power behind the throne is often forgotten, and I don’t intend to forget, or let my descendants forget ….

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