FALSE. SOS was probably first used on 10th June 1909, about three years before the Titanic sank, by the Cunard liner SS Slavonia, when she was wrecked off the Azores.
It is sometimes claimed that the first SOS call was in fact sent in January of that year by the White Star liner RMS Republic, on January 23rd, 1909, after she accidentally rammed the SS Florida. However, the call used in this case was not SOS but the original Marconi distress signal CQD, making the Republic’s claim to fame being possibly the first use of any distress call by wireless transmission. CQD, transmitted in Morse code as:
— · — · —— · — —· ·
was one of the first distress signals adopted for radio use. It was announced on January 7, 1904, by Circular 57 of the Marconi International Marine Communication Company, and became effective, for Marconi installations, beginning February 1, 1904.
Contrary to popular belief, CQD does not stand for ‘Come Quick, Danger’ or ‘Come Quickly Distress’. Land telegraphs had traditionally used ‘CQ’ to identify messages of interest to all stations along a telegraph line, and CQ had also been adopted as a ‘general call’ for maritime radio use. The CQ call was originally used by landline telegraphy operators in the United Kingdom. French was, and still is, the official language for international postal services, and the word sécurité was used to mean ‘safety’ or ‘pay attention’. It is still used in this sense in international telecommunications. The letters CQ, when pronounced in French, resemble the first two syllables of sécurité, and were therefore used as shorthand for the word. In English-speaking countries, the origin of the abbreviation CQ was popularly changed to the phrase ‘seek you’. However, in landline usage there was no general emergency signal, so the Marconi company added a ‘D’ to CQ in order to create its distress call. Thus ‘CQD’ meant literally, ‘All stations: distress.’
There is evidence that the German Imperial Navy Office, or ‘Reichs-Marineamt’ had designated the signal
· · · — — — · · · (SOS)
to be the official distress signal for all German ship and coastal radio stations as early as April 1904. Certainly, SOS was referred to as a distress signal in Germany as part of a set of national radio regulations which came into effect from April 1, 1905. These regulations formally introduced three Morse code sequences, including the SOS distress signal:
1. Ruhezeichen (‘Cease-sending signal’), consisting ofsixdahs(——————),sentbyshorestations to tell other local stations to stop transmitting.
2. Suchzeichen (‘Quest signal’), composed of three-dits/three dahs/one-dit, all run together (· · · — — — ·), used by ships to get the attention of shore stations.
3. Notzeichen (‘Distress signal’), consisting of three- dits/three-dahs/three-dits (· · · — — — · · · ), also in a continuous sequence, to be repeated by a ship in distress until all other stations have stopped.
So the SOS distress signal was simply the adding of two dits to the general German radio call or ‘Quest signal’:
· · · —— —·
· · · — — —· · ·
a simple and distinctive distress communication.
It was decided that SOS should become the worldwide standard distress signal at the Second International Radiotelegraphic Convention in Berlin on November 3rd, 1906. This came into effect on July 1, 1908, with Article XVI of the regulations adopting Germany’s ‘Notzeichen’, or distress signal, as the international standard, saying:
‘Ships in distress shall use the following signal: · · · — — — · · ·
repeated at brief intervals.’
In both the April 1st, 1905 German law, and the 1906 International regulations, the distress signal was specified as a continuous Morse code sequence of three-dits/three-dahs/ three-dits, with no mention of any alphabetic equivalents. However, in International Morse, three dits comprise the letter S, and three dahs the letter O, so it was therefore easiest to refer to the distress signal as ‘SOS’, and an early report on The International Radio-Telegraphic Convention in the January 12th, 1907 edition of Electrical World stated that, ‘Vessels in distress use the special signal, SOS, repeated at short intervals.’ In popular usage, SOS became associated with phrases such as ‘save our ship’ or ‘save our souls’, but these were only conceived of by English speaking countries after the signal had been adopted, as an aid to remembering the correct letters.
In 1912, Titanic sent both the traditional Marconi distress signal CQD and the new international distress signal SOS, because when Captain Smith came into Titanic’s Marconi room a second time and asked ‘What are you sending?’ Phillips replied, ‘CQD’ and Bride quipped:
‘Send SOS; it’s the new call, and it may be your last chance to send it!’
This well-timed joke made him and Phillips and Captain Smith all laugh, momentarily relieving the terrible stress of their situation.
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