Theodore Newton Vail

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Theodore Newton Vail
Theodore Newton Vail, bw photo portrait, 1913.jpg
Vail in 1913
Born (1845-07-16)July 16, 1845
Minerva, Ohio
Died April 16, 1920(1920-04-16) (aged 74)
Baltimore, Maryland
Employer American Telephone & Telegraph
Title President
Spouse(s) Emma Righter (m. 1869–1905)

Theodore Newton Vail (July 16, 1845 – April 16, 1920) was a U.S. telephone industrialist. He served as the president of American Telephone & Telegraph between 1885 and 1889, and again from 1907 to 1919 (the company was named American Telephone & Telegraph before 1894). Vail saw telephone service as a public utility and moved to consolidate telephone networks under the Bell system. In 1913 he oversaw the Kingsbury Commitment that led to a more open system for connection.


Theodore was born on July 16, 1845 in Minerva, Ohio, and he was educated in Morristown, New Jersey. At first he studied medicine with his uncle. He also studied telegraphy. Success in the latter led him to go to New York, where he became manager of a local telegraphy office.[1]

He then joined the staff of a superintendent of The United States Telegraph Co. which ultimately became Western Union.[1]

He went west with his father in 1866 to farm. In the fall of 1868, he was made operator and afterward agent at Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, on the Union Pacific Railroad. Pine Bluffs was at that time the principal supply point for wood for The Union Pacific, which had not then been completed.[1]

In the Spring of 1869, Vail was appointed clerk of the railway mail service between Omaha and Ogden. His success in getting the mail through during the snow blockage of 1870, came to the attention of upper management.[1]

He was promoted to the Chicago and Iowa City railway post office, an important distribution point at the time. When the railway post office was established on The Union Pacific, Vail was promoted to head clerk.[1]

In March, 1873, Vail was assigned to duty in the office of the General Superintendent of Railway Mail Service, Washington, D.C. There he exercised special oversight of distribution of the mails,[1] and justified to Congress the compensation the railways received for carrying the mail. In June, 1874, he was appointed Assistant Superintendent of Railway Mail Service. In 1875, he became Assistant General Superintendent.[1]

In February, 1876, Vail was appointed General Superintendent after his boss retired. He had reached the highest grade attainable in this branch of the Federal government. He was the youngest officer in the Railway Mail Service, both in years and terms of service. When this final appointment was made by the Postmaster General, the latter said that his only objection to Vail was his youth.[1]

As General Superintendent, Vail helped put postal employees under the general civil service laws. He established the system of six months' probationary appointments, which were subsequently adopted by all agencies.[1]

Career with telephones[edit]

The American Bell Telephone Co. had been organized by Gardiner G. Hubbard, father in law of Alexander Graham Bell. As a lawyer and lobbyist, Hubbard had opposed the Post Office Department before Congress on various issues.

Vail became convinced as a result of his association with Hubbard that the telephone would eventually revolutionize world communication, and he became a vigorous, though generally unsuccessful, promoter of Bell stock.[2]

Hubbard was impressed with Vail and offered him the position of general manager of the American Bell Telephone Company in 1878. Vail defended the Bell patents successfully from challenges from Western Union and others. He introduced the use of copper wire in telephone and telegraph lines.[1]

In 1888, Vail retired, temporarily as it turned out, and devoted his time to travel and adventure in South America, and promoting the use of the telephone abroad.[1]

In his historical review of AT&T, John Brooks explained Vail’s contribution to enlightened corporate policy:

Vail’s presidential essays in AT&T annual reports are like nothing else in American business literature, before or since. They are personal, revealing, discursive, and sometimes pontifical. "If we don’t tell the truth about ourselves, someone else will", Vail said in 1911. ... In 1907 he led off with a section entitled "Public Relations" – by which, as the context made clear, he meant not advertising and promotion, but the whole scope of relations between the corporation and the public. ... Vail introduced the concept ... that maximum private profit was not necessarily the primary objective of private enterprise. Profit was necessary to insure financial health...but was only one element in an equation.[3]

Personal life[edit]

He was a first cousin to Alfred Vail instrumental in developing the first telegraph.

In August 1869, Vail married Emma Righter (November 6, 18?? - February 3, 1905), of Newark, New Jersey. They had one son, Davis Righter Vail (July 18, 1870 - December 20, 1906),[1] who died after a 10 day bout with typhoid fever in 1906.[4]

He first visited Vermont in 1883.[5] This led to his eventual purchase of a 1,500-acre (6.1 km2) farm in Lyndon, Vermont, Speedwell Farms, site of conferences which culminated in the creation of American Telephone & Telegraph.

He was a member of the Union League Club of New York and the Algonquin Club of Boston and the Jekyll Island Club.[1]

Other accomplishments[edit]

Vail founded the Vermont School of Agriculture in 1910 in Lyndon, Vermont. This was subsequently merged into a preparatory school, Lyndon Institute. He acquired the scientific book collection of George Edward Dering in 1911 and presented it to the library of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[6]

Vail co-founded Junior Achievement in 1919.


  • Vail Campus, Lyndon Institute, Lyndon, Vermont.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Notable Vail Kin retrieved April 26, 1980
  2. ^ John Brooks (1976) Telephone: The First Hundred Years, p 68, Harper & Row ISBN 0-06-010540-2
  3. ^ Books p 131
  4. ^ "D. R. VAIL, ATHLETE, IS DEAD" (PDF). The New York Times. 23 December 1906. 
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ "Vail Electrical Library has grown to be the third largest in the United States" (PDF). The Tech. 3 January 1920. Retrieved 2008-08-25. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Preceded by
President of American Telephone & Telegraph
Succeeded by
Preceded by
President of American Telephone & Telegraph
Succeeded by
Harry Bates Thayer