‘SOS’ is a commonly used as a distress signal. If you ask most people what the letters of this acronym stand for, they would say that it means ‘Save Our Souls’. Others may disagree and suggest that it means ‘Save Our Ship’. However, both parties would be incorrect as this isn’t actually an acronym at all and there is no meaning to the letters. So, why do people use ‘SOS’ as a distress signal?
Actually, this signal is not even intended as three separate letters. It is used in Morse code as a continuous string of dots and dashes. The sequence used is three dots, three dashes, and then three more dots with no spaces or pauses in between. Three dots is the code for the letter ‘S’ and three dashes is the code for ‘O’. This led to the distress signal becoming known internationally as ‘SOS’. This was more for the sake of convenience than for any other reason.
In turn, this has led people to use the letters as means of a distress signal that is separate to Morse code. For example, people who are stranded may spell out the letters ‘SOS’ on the floor so that search parties can see the lettering from above. There are many ways that the Morse code for ‘SOS’ could have been broken down and interpreted if spaces were added at various intervals, such as into two dots, a dot and two dashes, a dash and a dot, and then two dots. Some of the possible variations are SMB, IJS, and VTB. However, it is ‘SOS’ that has stuck.
If there is no meaning behind the letters, then you are probably wondering why this particular sequence was chosen in the first place. The simple answer is that it was the best option. Around the turn of the 20th century, wireless radiotelegraph machines were used for the first time on ships. The seaman needed an easy way to communicate if they were in danger and needed assistance.
Initially, different countries and organizations had their own separate way of signaling distress. While the U.S Navy used the maritime flag signal for distress, NC, The Macaroni Company used the code ‘CQD’. It was the Germans that first used the distress signal ‘…—-…’ in 1905. It was mandated that all German ships use this code by the German Regulation for the Control of Spark Telegraphy.
The use of multiple distress signals was posing a problem. This was especially the case if a ship ran into problems in foreign waters. Several countries decided to meet up to create international regulations for radiotelegraph communications. In 1906, several attempts were made to create an international distress signal and many different ideas were put forward. It was decided that the German method of communicating distress was the best option as it was quick, easy to send, and difficult to misinterpret. This became the official international call for distress on July 1, 1908.
However, the first recorded use of the distress signal did not happen until a little later. It was just over a year later that the first official ‘SOS’ distress signal was made in August 1909. This was sent by the wireless operators on the SS Arapahoe. Their ship was disabled by a broken propeller and they were stranded just off the coast of Cape Hatteras in North Caroline. The wireless operators deemed it necessary to use the new international distress signal, ‘SOS’.
Unfortunately, not everyone else was so keen to use the new standards. The Macaroni Company, which leased telegraph operators and equipment to ships, wanted to continue using their own code ‘CQD’. It was operators form this company that was working on board the Titanic when it struck an iceberg. Initially, they sent out a distress call using their own ‘CQD’ signal. When they got no response, one of the workers suggested that they also used the ‘SOS’ signal.
This explains why there are no words attached to the distress signal ‘SOS’. The use of ‘Save Our Souls’ and ‘Save Our Ship’ were meanings that were added later by people who were trying to reason the meaning behind the distress signal by attaching words to each of the letters. People now commonly believe that these sayings are what the letters stand for as they are unaware of the interesting history of the use of ‘SOS’ as an international distress signal.