What does SOS stand for? Many people believe SOS is short for “Save Our Ship,” or “Save Our Souls,” but this is actually not true. What is true, however, is that SOS is undeniably a distress signal. The Maritime community adopted SOS as a distress call specifically for ships, based on Morse Code.
Morse Code was developed by Samuel Morse in 1835. Using a series of dots and dashes to represent the letters of the alphabet, telegraphers could communicate messages by sending pulses of electric current through telegraph wires. Dots are an electrical pulse of one unit of measurement. Dashes are represented by an electrical pulse of three units of measurement.
Each letter of the alphabet, along with Arabic numerals and some punctuation, was assigned a unique combination of dots and dashes to represent it. The letter “E” and the letter “T” are the shortest, with E being assigned a single dot and T a single dash. Two letters of the alphabet are a series of three, with O consisting of three dashes, and S consisting of three dots.
Samuel Morse developed the first distress signal, CQD. CQ, in combination, meant “general notice.” It was designed to notify anyone within listening range that a message was about to come across the lines. This was opposed to a specific message sent to a specific office for a specific person. The D, in CQD, stood for distress. In other words, CQD communicated the message, “General Notice, Distress!” While some believe CQD stands for “Come Quick, Danger,” this handle was made up after the fact, and was not Morse’s original intent.
So What Does SOS Stand For?
Guglielmo Marconi led the charge in making Morse Code available on ships. Before that, ships were only able to communicate with other ships or the shore when in visual range. The wireless telegraph revolutionized ship to ship and ship to shore communication. By 1904, discussions began in the shipping community about distress signals. At that time, each country had their own way to communicate distress. England used CQD. The U.S. Navy employed NC, the International Code of Signals maritime flag signal for distress. Italy used SSSDDD. With so many different signals for distress, you can probably see why the lack of a universal messaging could be problematic.
In 1906, discussions about a universal danger signal continued at the second Berlin Radiotelegraph Conference. SOS – three dots, followed by three dashes, followed by three dots, sent as a single string – became the agreed upon message for signaling distress, due to its ease of use and the fact it was considered unlikely the message would be misinterpreted.
Further evidence SOS does not stand for Save our Ship or Save Our Souls is found in the fact this distress signal was adopted first by the Germans in 1905. It is highly unlikely the Germans would have adopted an English or American phrase as shorthand to signal distress.
The SOS signal was ratified at the 1908 Radiotelegraph Conference; however, old habits die hard. The British continued to use CQD. In 1935, in his book SOS to the Rescue, Karl Baarslag noted, “Although adopted internationally in 1908, [SOS] had not completely displaced the older CQD in the British operators’ affections.”
CQD, SOS, and the Titanic
According to the logs of the SS Carpathia, the Titanic first used CQD as their distress call. First Radio Officer Jack Phillips sent the message CQD, followed by the Titanic’s call letters, MGY, six times. Second Radio Officer Harold Bride then suggested Phillips at least intersperse the message SOS into his distress calls. Even after released from duty by his captain, Phillips remained at his post and continued to transmit distress calls without regard for his personal safety, stopping only when the Titanic‘s power finally failed and he could send no more.
SOS in the United States
The first documented use of SOS in the United States occurred in August of 1909. The SS Arapahoe lost its power in the Graveyard of the Atlantic near Diamond Shoals. T. D. Haubner sent out the SOS, which was heard by the United Wireless station at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The ship and crew were rescued, thanks to the SOS signal.
Interestingly, the same operator who sent the first SOS signal, T. D. Haubner, was also the recipient of the second SOS signal documented in United States maritime history. Still working on the SS Arapahoe, Haubner received an SOS distress call from the SS Iroquois. The ship was rescued and later, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent the SS Iroquois to Ireland to rescue Americans caught in Europe when the war broke out.
SOS and SSS
During World War II, ship telegraph operators amended their SOS signals to further inform surrounding ships of the nature of the danger. These messages include the following:
- SOS AAA – signals an attack by aircraft;
- SOS QQQ – signals an attack of an unknown raider;
- SOS RRR – signals an attack by a surface raider;
- SOS SSS – signals a submarine attack.
The Ease of SOS
SOS has expanded beyond the telegraph. Because of its ease of use, SOS can be communicated by flashlight with three short bursts of light, followed by three longer bursts, followed again by three shorter bursts of light. SOS has also been used to communicate distress in the sand. In 2012, 5 people were rescued off the northeastern coast of Australia after creating an SOS message on a sandbar. The snorkelers’ boat had broken free of its anchor.
Today, SOS remains the easiest and best signal to use whenever anyone finds themselves in trouble.
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.