SOS does not stand for “Save Our Souls”: meaning and history of the universal distress signal

Who has never used – even just playfully – the term “SOS” to ask help? The universal distress signal, emitted by ships at sea in difficulty, is often interpreted the wrong way. According to many people, in fact, “SOS” is an acronym for the English phrase Save Our Souls (“Save our souls”), but this is not the case. The signal it is not an acronymbut rather a sequence of Morse code conceived in the early twentieth century by a German radio, which consisted of three dots, three dashes and three dotswritten without spaces between them, as follows:

· · · — — — · · ·

The sequence of letters it had no specific meaning, it was simply chosen because it was simple for anyone to understand and immediately recognizable in any situation. After all, if you are in the open sea, perhaps in a storm and with the danger of sinking, it is necessary to have a clear and immediate signal. In any case, even if the signal had been an acronym, it couldn't have meant Save Our Souls because it was invented in Germany, where the same sentence would sound like Rettet Unsere Seelen. So basically the acronym was “invented” later!

The need to have a universal signal arose from the fact that before the invention of SOS as a distress signal that was valid for everyone, many countries (European ones in particular) used a series of different codes, which as you can imagine were widely misunderstood, especially in case of cross-languages.

emergency radio room

Just to give a few examples, in 1904 the Marconi telecommunications company had tried to invent a distress code, “CQD“, which meant “I look for you. Distress!”. In the USA, however, it was used “NC“, which stood for “Request help without delay”. What was therefore missing was an easily understandable term that would bring the whole world into agreement regarding rescues at sea. Thus it was that in 1906 the International Radiotelegraphic Convention proposed the SOS solution.

The proposal went into effect, but it took years before it was used worldwide. His first use documented It dates back to 1909when the American commander Theodore D. Haubner signaled the danger of the steamer SS Arapahoe off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. On that occasion Haubner also sent the old “CQD”, because he feared that the SOS, being new, would not be recognized by those who had to listen to it.

But it was with the Titanic shipwreck on April 15, 1912 that things took a completely different turn.

The night the liner sank, the operator Jack Phillips who was on duty in the radio room, forwarded the distress call to nearby ships using a telegraph machine rented from Marconi, a company founded by the well-known Bolognese inventor in 1897 and which at the time had managed to acquire many luxury ships. Initially Phillips sent the “CQD” signal, and then also the “SOS” signal at the suggestion of his colleague Harold Bridewho – jokingly – told him:

SOS is the new call for new rescue requests… and I really think this could be your last chance to send it!”

Jack Phillips in the radio room of the Titanic
Jack Phillips in the radio room of the Titanic.

Soon, however, Bride also realized that there was little to joke about, because the German ship SS Frankfurt she responded late, and when she did she wasn't very serious about it. The operator on board was part of the telecommunications company Telefunken, rival of the much better known Marconi for which the two operators of the Titanic worked, which had tried to exclude the German company from the maritime market. Precisely for this reason the operators of the latter avoided exchanging messages with their radio operators.

The distress calls were also downplayed by operators on other ships, and the line was repeatedly blocked by confused operators who did not realize the true severity of the situation and who continued to ask non-essential questions of Phillips and Bride. Furthermore, ham radios also interfered with messages, making communication complicated.

As if the situation wasn't desperate enough, bad luck would have it that the closest ship, the Californianhe didn't even receive an SOS, because his operator he had turned off the radio receiver after arguing with Phillips.

Following that unfortunate night, in the United States of America it was decided to make wireless communications by sea operational 24 hours a day, andSOS was adopted as the standard distress signal both in America and around the world. That is until 1999, when large ships stopped using Morse code in favor of Global Maritime Distress and Safety Systema satellite-based international radio communications system that allows you to send and receive messages in real time.

Although technology has moved forward, “SOS” is still used today in common jargon when you want to ask for help, but luckily… without a cumbersome telegraph!