What the SOS Distress Signal Stands For

Daven Hiskey 15
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.”.  Interestingly though, SOS actually stands for nothing at all.  It’s 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.  Also, being sent together as one string (with no stops), it could be sent very quickly and needing very little power to transmit.  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…”

Bonus Facts:

  • 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.

Expand for References:

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15 Comments »

  1. HomeList December 28, 2010 at 8:43 pm - Reply

    Very interesting. I always thought it stood for Save Our Ship. I never even considered Morse code origins though.

  2. Brian Epstein December 29, 2010 at 2:53 am - Reply

    Damn, I always assumed it stood for Save Our Souls. Makes sense…

  3. swedishhighball April 29, 2011 at 6:24 pm - Reply

    SOS stands for nothing. It was used by code senders because it was the easiest
    three letters to send. It consistes of 3 dots, three dashes, three dots.

    …—…
    s o s

  4. swedishhighball April 29, 2011 at 6:28 pm - Reply

    On the above posting it looks like three dots and one dash. O in morse code is three dashes.

    … – - -…

  5. Johnn T. September 23, 2012 at 6:34 pm - Reply

    Alright; I need to clear some things up here.
    The Cunard liner SS Slovenia was the first ship to send SOS. The Arapahoe was the first American ship to send SOS.
    Harold Bride was the assistant wireless operator on Titanic, not Carpathia.
    And CQ was already in use as an “all stations” call, Marconi simply added the D to make the call a general emergency call, D signifying distress.
    But not bad for a college boy I guess.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey September 24, 2012 at 11:54 am - Reply

      @Johnn T. References?

  6. Kevin March 19, 2013 at 9:42 am - Reply

    I always thought it meant Stranded On Shore

  7. Patrick September 5, 2013 at 7:49 am - Reply

    Harold Bride was the other wireless operator in Titanic, not SS Carpathia as stated.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey September 5, 2013 at 11:32 am - Reply

      @Patrick: Correct. Thanks for catching that. :-) The confusion was that after being rescued by the Carpathia, Bride temporarily became one of the wireless operators aboard the Carpathia as they had a lot of things to transmit and needed the extra help.

  8. Colby October 4, 2013 at 6:43 pm - Reply

    Stuck Out Stranded

    Was my original thought. For 17 years. :p

  9. Peter Wood Jenkins November 1, 2013 at 10:38 am - Reply

    It\s well known to be an Acronym, for Save Our Souls. So nothing will change that for me.

    Speaking as one who gave out an S.O.S. when our yacht got into trouble off of England, .

    To say it stands for nothing is daft, it’s a distress signal, and it’s only given when you get in dire danger.

    So it would be better if you re learn something today yes it is an acronym .

    • MarcoC March 4, 2014 at 2:03 pm - Reply

      It’s not. I have known that forever and it’s well documented. “Save Our Souls” would be a silly call anyway. As the article stated, it’s its morse structure that makes it effective.

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