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Theodore Vail

A game of solitaire

Like so many Americans who succeed in business, Theodore Newton Vail started out in the mail room. While working in 1869 as a clerk for the Railway Mail Service (then a large branch of the US Post Office), Vail was recognized for developing an improved sorting method. A series of promotions propelled him through the ranks, until he found himself at the vanguard of communications innovation.

Gardiner Hubbard, a like-minded innovator and Alexander Graham Bell’s original investor, convinced Vail not only to invest in his telephone venture, but to move to Boston and manage Bell’s telephone company. In a way, telecommunications was all in the family: Theodore’s cousin, Alfred Vail, had worked with Samuel Morse during the early development of the telegraph. But it was Theodore who cemented the association of his family name with telecommunications.

A giant in American telephony

In 1885, when American Bell established American Telephone & Telegraph (a subsidiary dedicated to long-distance phone service), Vail was appointed the company’s first president. A disagreement with investors led to his departure in 1887, but he returned to run AT&T twenty years later. By that time, key Bell patents had expired, and competition was healthy.

Vail envisioned a service model whose reach resembled that of the Post Office, and AT&T spent the next six years buying out its competitors. Some questioned the drive to consolidate American telephone service, but Vail’s own vision was always grounded in the public good.

The Vail bookplate

His philanthropy was demonstrated dramatically in his 1912 purchase of George Edward Dering’s magnificent scientific library, which he immediately donated to MIT, and which MIT named in his honor.

Though not an alumnus, Vail eventually became a life member of the MIT Corporation, and he understood the relevance of this great collection to MIT’s teaching and research. A few years after the collection’s arrival at MIT, an article in The Tech, the Institute’s student newspaper, boasted that the Vail Collection was among “the many possessions of Technology which are looked upon with mingled admiration and envy by outsiders and other institutions.”

Continue reading History of the Collection: Vail Collection at MIT