What the SOS Distress Signal Stands For
Today I found out what SOS stands for.
It is commonly held that “SOS” is an acronym for “Save Our Ship” and thus often written “S.O.S.” In truth, SOS is not an acronym for anything, which is why it is incorrect to put full stops between each letter.
So why was SOS chosen to signify a distress signal? The thought was that SOS- in Morse code signified by three dots, three dashes, then three dots- could not be misinterpreted as being a message for anything else. Further, being sent together as one string (with no stops), it could be sent very quickly and needs very little power to transmit.
So, despite what you might have read elsewhere, as the 1918 Marconi Yearbook of Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony notes, “This signal [SOS] was adopted simply on account of its easy radiation and its unmistakable character. There is no special significance in the letters themselves…”
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy subscribing to our new Daily Knowledge YouTube channel, as well as:
- Why People on Planes and Ships Use the Word “Mayday” When in Extreme Distress
- The Difference Between an Acronym and an Initialism
- Why Port and Starboard Indicate the Left and Right Side of a Ship
- Why the Speed of Seafaring Vessels is Measured in Knots
- Why We Break A Bottle of Champagne Against New Ships
- The SOS signal was created and adopted as the universal international distress signal at the 1906 Berlin Radiotelegraphic Conference.
- In 1909, T.D. Haubner of the SS Arapahoe became the first person to use the SOS distress signal call. The ship he worked on had lost its screw near the Diamond Shoals which are also known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”. Interestingly, a few months later Haubner, still working on the SS Arapahoe, received the world’s second SOS call; this one sent from the SS Iroquois. So he was the first sender and the second receiver.
- The signal “SSS” was adopted during WWII when the emergency was caused by a submarine attack. This was to let any potential rescuing ships know there was a hostile submarine in the region.
- The creator of the S.O.S pads wife thought that the SOS signal stood for “Save Our Ships”, which inspired her to name her husband’s cleaning pads S.O.S, standing for “Save Our Saucepans“.
- The SOS standard signal for distress was preceded by the standard “CQD” signal which meant literally: CQ: general call or “all stations”; D: Distress.
- The Titanic’s radio officer Jack Phillips first used the old standard “CQD” to call for help. He transmitted “CQD” six times followed by the Titanic’s call letters “MGY”. He later interspersed “SOS” in with the “CQD” messages, at the suggestion of junior radio officer Harold Bride.
- Interestingly Marconi, of the Marconi Company who had originally suggested “CQD” for a distress signal, was waiting in New York to return to England on the Titanic.
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