Tuesday, July 01, 2008

After 100 years SOS is Still Our Saviour

Today, July 1st, is the 100th anniversary of the SOS distress call, recognised all over the world. Here’s my piece to mark the anniversary from The Daily Express.

A common misconception is that ‘SOS’ stands for something: popular choices being: "Save Our Ship,""Save Our Souls" "Survivors On Ship," or "Save Our Sailors".

But the letters have no meaning in themselves- ‘SOS’ is just three dots, three dashes, three dots in Morse Code- a simple, and easily recognisable message which became the internationally recognised distress signal for ships at sea exactly one hundred years ago this week.

The letters ‘SOS’ have, over the past century, become firmly established in popular culture. The rock group The Police sang about sending an ‘SOS to the world’ in their hit ‘Message in a Bottle‘. ABBA‘s ‘SOS’ also got to number one, while Rihanna’s ‘SOS-Rescue Me’ was a huge international hit in 2006.

SOS is recognised as a distress signal not just at sea, but anywhere where people find themselves in danger. Three short, three long and three short signals, transmitted by flashlights, has been used by those stranded in mountainous area at night. And people lost in the wilderness have used rocks and other objects to spell out ‘SOS’ to attract the attention of aircraft. ‘Sending out an SOS signal’ has become the parlance for anyone who sends out a signal for help-whether or not Morse Code is used- like the American hiker who earlier this month was rescued from a German mountain after waving and throwing her bra to attract attention.

The story of SOS begins in the late 19th century. Before the advent of radio telegraphy, ships in distress had to rely on the likes of semaphore flags, signal flares, bells, and foghorns to attract the attention of would-be rescuers. But around the end of the 19th century, sea-going vessels began to be fitted with radios. Ship radios back then did not involve vocal communication, but the use of Morse Code- a system of communication developed in the US in the 1840s.

The first ship to send out a Morse Code radio distress signal was the East Goodwin lightship, when the merchant ship ‘Elbe’ ran aground in Kent in March 1899. The lightship radioed the nearby lighthouse, which then summoned the aid of lifeboat to rescue the ship’s crew. Ironically, only a month later the East Goodwin lightship became the first vessel to send a radio signal of its own distress when it was rammed by another ship.

The problem was that different ships used different messages to say they were in distress, often leading to confusion. Some ships transmitted ‘Help’, while others used messages in their own language- not much use if in danger off the coast of another country. There was an urgent need for an internationally agreed standardised distress signal and the first one to be adopted was ‘CQD’ - devised by Britain’s Marconi Corporation in 1904. But although this was a major step forward, there were still problems. ‘CQD’ was supposed to mean ‘All Stations-Urgent’, but it was regularly mistaken for ‘Come quick- danger’. And if the final ‘D‘ was not heard, then the signal would be interpreted as the non-urgent "calling anyone".

Something simpler- and less open to misinterpretation was needed and the solution was found in Germany.

The Germans had originally used the distress signal ‘SOE’. But it was felt that the three ‘dots’ of an ‘S’ in Morse Code were easier to hear in static than the one dot of an ‘E’, so the final letter was substituted.

The real beauty of ‘SOS’ was its simplicity: dot-dot-dot-dash-dash-dash-dot-dot-dot in Morse Code was far less likely to be misinterpreted than the more complex dash-dot-dash-dot, dash-dash-dot-dash, dash-dot-dot of ‘CQD‘. And it could be sent far more quickly- and with less chance of the radio operator making a mistake. For these reasons ‘SOS’ was officially adopted as the international distress signal at the second International Radiotelegraphic Convention in 1906- to come into effect on 1st July 1908.

It wasn’t long before the new signal was saving lives. In June 1909, a Cunard liner, the SS Slavonia, was wrecked off the Azores. The ship used the ‘SOS’ signal, which was received by two steamships who promptly went to the rescue. Not a single life was lost.

Although the use of ‘SOS’ had been officially ratified in 1908, ‘CQD’ lingered for several more years, especially on British ships. When the Titanic struck an iceberg off Newfoundland in April 1912, the ship first used ‘CQD’ to call for help. Later ‘CQD’ was interspersed with ‘SOS’, at the suggestion of the ship’s second radio operator Harold Bride. "Send SOS; it's the new call, and this may be your last chance to send it." Bride told the ship’s first radio operator, Jack Phillips.

Bride‘s words were indeed prophetic, as Phillips, along with over 1500 others, perished in the disaster.

The sinking of the Titanic marked the end of the use of ‘CQD’: from now on SOS was universally used as the international distress signal. Even America, initially reluctant to adopt international radio standards, officially adopted SOS in 1912.

During the First World War, when Allied ships faced the peril of being sunk by German U-Boats in the Atlantic- the SOS signal came into its own.

Sometimes though, fate transpired to hinder a successful rescue. In May 1915, the ocean liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a U-Boat just eight miles off the coast of Ireland. The ship immediately sent out an SOS, but because of a violent second explosion, the exact cause of which still remains a mystery to this day- it sank within 18 minutes- causing the deaths of 1,198 people.

In the Second World War, signals to augment SOS were devised. SOS followed by ‘SSS’ meant that the ship had been attacked by submarines; ‘AAA’ meant an attack by an aircraft, while QQQ meant attack by an unknown raider.

Today, there are now many other means of communicating that a ship is distress which don’t rely on Morse Code- such as the use of VHF radio, digital selective calling and even mobile phone calls to rescue services.

SOS messages can also be sent into space. In the 1970s the Soviet Union developed a satellite system (Kospas) which could receive distress signals from ships on earth. A similar American-French-Canadian system called Search and Rescue Satellite -Aided Tracking, (Sarsat), was also set up and in 1979 the two systems were joined together with the first satellite being launched three years later.

The quick location of ships by satellite technology has reduced the time it takes to rescue stricken vessels, helping to save even more lives. It’s all a far cry from the early days of radio telegraphy.

Today, there are now many other means of communicating that a ship is distress which don’t rely on Morse Code- such as the use of VHF radio, digital selective calling and even mobile phone calls to rescue services. But SOS is still the signal of distress that the whole world recognises.


Anonymous said...

"The Germans had originally used the distress signal ‘SOE’. But it was felt that the three ‘dots’ of an ‘S’ in Morse Code were easier to hear in static than the one dot of an ‘E’, so the final letter was substituted."
This information - and that the German delegation refused to accept SOS in 1906 in the world radio conference - is widely spread in English publications, but it is wrong.
"SOE" was a sort of selective call, used as "SOE "name of ship"", later in communication language "CP "callsign"".
At the instance of the German Imperial Navy Office "Reichs-Marineamt" in Germany the radio signal ...---... (SOS) was laid down officially, introduced for all German ship and coastal radio stations, already in April 1904!
I have a copy of this regulation; sources can be find in Staatsarchiv Aurich, Germany, Rep. 16/4.
Gregor Ulsamer, DL1BFE

Neil Clark said...

Hi Gregor,
Thanks for writing in.
Most of the references I looked at had the conference deciding on SOS, others had it already adopted by Germany before the conference, so I deliberately didn't put in when the Germans adopted it.
You say "SOE" was a sort of selective call, used as "SOE "name of ship"", later in communication language "CP "callsign"", can you expand on this a little more?
Many thanks for the info re the regulation.
Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

"The Germans had originally used the distress signal ‘SOE’..."

Unfortunately they called in the Special Operations Executive!

That reminds me.

British Army has the S.A.S.
Royal Marines the S.B.S.
Even the French Foreign Legion has its own elite unit- the C.R.A.P.

...and who in the present climate could forget those brave americans perishing at Desert One - Iran attempting to resue the hostages in 1980, the 'crack troops' of...

the S.O.S. !!

Anonymous said...

Hi Neil,

I thought this was a fascinating article - particularly as I'm currently researching a sea rescue that took place in 1908, shortly after the SOS call came into general operation.

My great-grandfather was on watch on a British steamship in stormy seas one November evening that year, and saw the SOS call from an American Schooner.

What followed next was perhaps an act of crazy bravado, but then US President, Roosevelt, deemed it bravery and awarded my great-grandfather, John Froome (himself a Brit from Beaminster, I believe) a medal for bravery.

We're in the process of planning our own 100 year commemoration, so we'll mention the link with the 100the anniversary of SOS.

More details of the sea rescue are at:

Best regards,
Melanie Surplice

Neil Clark said...

Hi Melanie,

Many thanks for getting in touch.
I'm pleased you enjoyed the piece. Your great-grandfather's story sounds fascinating and I'll certainly take a look at the link you kindly provide.

All best wishes and good luck with the centenary commemorations.