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History of the Vail Lever Correspondent Key

The first telegraph key shown on your site would appear to be a Vail Lever Correspondent.  It was designed and made for the Morse Printing Telegraph Company during Alfred Vail's tenure as Engineering Assistant
to Samuel FB Morse.  Even though the patent may have belonged to the Company it's design and construction were entirely the work of Alfred Vail as was the "Morse Code" itself.  The Smithsonian Institution has one of the two original Vail Lever Correspondent keys in it's collection and it is named as such.

The code devised by Samuel Morse assigned a number to every word in common usage in the English language.  It was several hundred pages in length and would have been very cumbersome and slow to use.  It was never actually used.

Vail came up with the alphabetic substitution code which became the "Morse Printing Telegraph Company" code; i.e. 'Morse Code'; which was actually used on land telegraph lines as well as on coastal and Great Lakes vessels in the Canada and the United States until the railroads ceased the use of telegraphy circa 1960.  Railroads were the last users of manual land line telegraphy in North America.

If there were any fairness in the excepted narrative of the history of the telegraph many of the devices used in those systems would be called Vail - devices.  Morse deserves the credit he gets as the individual who brought the basic principals of electromagnetism to the sending of textual messages by wire.  It was Alfred Vail who devised and built the actual instruments used as well as the code which the system used.  If you go to the Smithsonian Institution web site and search for Telegraph keys you will find the one in your first picture clearly marked as a Vail Lever Correspondent.  It was two Vail Lever Correspondent keys which were used in the first demonstration of the Telegraph to Congress and Alfred Vail was the operator which was at the Baltimore Railroad Station end of that first telegraph circuit.  The well known painting depicts the Library of Congress end of the circuit with Samuel Morse as the operator.  But the keys that Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail used were both a "Vail Lever Correspondent."

- Tom Horne


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Wireless Society of Southern Maine, P.O. Box 6833, Scarborough, ME 04074