The use and origin of maritime distress calls through the Morse Code Telegraph Machine have been surrounded by a lot of misinformation and mystery. Most people consider that the letters “SOS” come from the phrase “Save Our Ship”, but I am here to tell you that this can’t be farther from the truth. It should come as no surprise for morse code enthusiasts and students of radio history that before the use of “SOS” there was another code, the popular “CQD”. Why the use of these particular signals and when were they invented?
So, what does SOS really mean?
It might surprise you to find that it means absolutely nothing. Yes, that’s right, it has no actual meaning. The Morse Code for SOS is three dots in a line, followed by three dashes in a line, and then the other three dots in a line. It is made to be a simple way of communicating. It is a simple coincidence that those three dots also mean the letter “S” and the three dashes are also meant to spell “O” in the Morse Code. It is nothing else than a funny accident.
Well, actually it isn’t much of an accident. The SOS Morse code uses some short and easily understandable bursts that are easily picked up by the listener and not confused with anything else.
At the end of the 19th century, Guglielmo Marconi made the use of wireless telegraphy possible. Up until that moment, ships that were at sea but out of the visual range of anyone else were actually completely isolated from any other ships and even from the shore. Morse Code came as a huge help for wireless telegraphers that needed to send out short messages. Morse code is actually made from a series of dashes, which are longer signals, and dots, which are shorter signals. When spoken or drawn out, the long signals are known as “dah” while the short ones are called “dih”.
As an example, to make the letter “A”, you will have to tap or draw a dot that is followed by a dash, as seen below:
. _ = A
The CQD Code
The idea behind it was that when used, the “CQ” signal meant that each station will receive a message from a single transmission. This meant reducing both the needed labor and time for communication. As the operators were hired on ships, they continued to use this signal to ask for a general call. Shore stations and ships then started to use the sign for “all stations” soon after.
It was around 1904 when the Marconi company thought of a very useful distress signal and pushed for the use of “CQD”. Most people still think that the “CQD” signal meant “Come Quick Danger”, but just like in the case of the SOS signal, this is far from the truth. Its meaning is the initiation of a general call, with the help of the “CQ” signal, followed by the letter “D” that comes from distress. A short interpretation of the meaning behind “CQD” is “All stations, Distress”.
The emergence of the CQD code
This signal didn’t last long and in 1906, at a Radiotelegraphic Conference in Berlin, the subject of distress signals was addressed again. This is when the popular SOS signal was actually adopted. It was considered impossible to misinterpret. It was meant to be sent as one string made from three dots, three dashes, and three dots again.
As the Marconi Yearbook of Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony from 1918 perfectly puts it, The SOS signal was only adopted for its unmistakable character and its easy radiation. These letters hold no special meanings and shouldn’t have full stops between them. This means that they aren’t acronyms for anything, and any interpretations like “Send Out Succour”, “Save Our Souls” or “Save Our Ship” are false. This distress signal was meant to stop all stations that heard it from any handling of traffic until the emergency was attended to and the need for help was over.
Some British ships continue to use “CQD” even after “SOS” was ratified in 1908. It was after a few years that the old signal faded away.
A great conversation opener is that the Titanic first used “CQD” as a distress signal, as documented by Harold Bride, which was second Radio Officer at the time. This information is also available in the logs of the SS Carpathia.
SOS was first used as a distress signal by an American in August of 1909. It was then that T. D. Haubner, a wireless operator of the SS Arapahoe radioed asking for help near Diamond Shoals, also known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” when his ship lost its screw.
Nowadays, there are a lot of other ways of asking for help, which include special transmitting devices that are operated with the help of a single button, and the well-known dedicated radio channels.
This article has pointed out both the meaning behind the SOS signal, but also its history, and the reason why it is used worldwide. Getting yourself involved in nautical conversations, this information might prove to be very useful because even the most experienced sailors will have a hard time explaining what did SOS come from and what it actually means.