Vail, Theodore

Vail, Theodore (Newton)

(1845–1920) telephone and utilities executive; born near Minerva, Ohio. He moved to New Jersey (1847) where he learned to operate the telegraph while a clerk in a drugstore. By age 19 he was at Western Union Telegraph Company in New York City. In 1866 he moved with his family to Iowa and by 1869 was working for the U.S. Post Office Department. He inaugurated the Fast Mail, the first train to carry only mail, between New York and Chicago (1875), and by 1876 was general superintendent of the railway mail service. He became general manager of the new Bell Telephone Company (1878–87) where he directed the expansion of local exchanges, anticipated technical developments, and organized financing of the system. He also made possible a long distance system by connecting all the existing companies into the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) (1885) with himself as president. Exhausted, he retired to a Vermont farm in 1889. From 1894–1907 he helped develop utilities in Argentina. He was called back to AT&T in 1907 to deal with the problems that ensued when the Bell patents expired in 1893–94. He successfully reunified the phone companies and pushed research and development; in 1915 the first transcontinental telephone line was opened. He retired to chair the board of directors (1919). He was a cousin of Alfred Vail, telegraph pioneer and partner of Samuel Morse.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.