Sea voyages are pretty risky affairs. Before the late 19th century they were more so because the ships at sea were pretty much isolated since there was no means of communication with the land. It took some time to know if a ship had got into an accident or so.
With the invention of wireless telegraph, it became possible to establish a communication system between the ships and the land. The telegraph system uses Morse code for communication which is a way of representing letters using dots and dashes. There were developed some distress signals to inform if the ship was in any trouble and in need of assistance. The first use of telegraph for assistance was in 1899, when two ships collided with each other near the English coast. The SOS message is such a distress signal, developed in early years of 20th century.
The predecessor of SOS was CQD, introduced by Marcony Company. It was interpreted as short for ‘Come Quick Danger’ but was actually derived from the code for general calls in land wire, CQ. The D meant distress. The signal translated to ‘All stations, Distress’. CQD was favored by many even after the introduction of SOS, and it stayed for years until fading into history.
SOS is often interpreted by the public to mean phrases like ‘Save Our Ship’, ‘Save Our Souls’ and ‘Send Out Succor’, however it is not so. It has no specific meaning, as attested by the Marconi Yearbook of Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony itself in 1918. The SOS was selected as the code simply for its easy representation. The signal is three dots, followed by three dashes and three dots again, without letter spacing. It is also the only Morse code signal with nine elements.
Even though it was popularized by Marconi Company, SOS was first introduced by Germany in 1905. It was adopted as the standard distress signal by the international maritime community at the second International Radiotelegraphic Convention in Berlin in 1906, effective from 1st July, 1908.
Another popular misconception among public is that Titanic was the first ship to send an SOS message. However, it is a myth since the first SOS transmission was on June 10, 1909, from RMS Slavonia. Titanic, upon its sinking in 1912, used both CQD and SOS signals intermixed. Later, with the progress of technology, new signals and better communication methods arrived. SOS continued to be a standard distress signal until its replacement in 1999 with the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System.
You might also like: