What does SOS stand for? When was the first SOS message relayed and by whom?

Most people think that the abbreviation SOS stands for “save our ships” or “save our souls.” No wonder since the corresponding meaning is what we usually see in cartoons, books, and movies. But truth to be told, SOS is a backronym, which letters don’t stand for anything.

Moreover, the distress signal initially didn’t translate to SOS either. It was a string of Morse code composed of three dots, three dashes, and another three dots running with no full stops or spaces. When applying the international Morse code, it forms SOS. Thus, it has been called since then for easier reference.

Since then, SOS evolved to be a visual warning itself, deviating from the Morse code and has been used by people who are in danger or distress by means of spelling them on the ground for it to be seen from above by choppers or planes.

If it doesn’t mean anything in the first place, why did people use them in the first place? Well, SOS served as the easiest way to communicate and get things done, especially on risky sea voyages.

At the start of the 20th century, the use of wireless radiotelegraph devices was introduced onto ships. With that, seamen yearned for something they can utilize to catch attention and ask for help in case they get in danger. They needed a distinct signal they can use to pass onto each other in the quickest and most definite way possible, without misinterpreting it with other warnings.

With that, each country and organization created its own distress warning. The Marconi Company used “CQD.” The U.S. Navy then had “N.C.” Meanwhile, Germany used “…—…” through a ruling in 1905.

While it was good each of the said bodies had assigned their own signals, it was only significant for communicating with seamen within the same organization. If a ship gets in danger in foreign waters, it won’t be easy to ask for help as it uses a different code.

So, the countries had a consensus to create an international regulation governing radiotelegraph communications and create a standard distress signal. The Marconi Company and Italy proposed their own calls. However, they were thought to be too complicated, making it hard to transmit and interpret. On the other hand, Germany’s signal was way too easy to send and understand.

In 1906, the standard use of SOS was ratified at the Radiotelegraph Conference. It went into effect two years later. However, the first recorded use came a year after in August 1909 when the S.S. Arapahoe was disabled and lost power due to a damaged propeller. Their operator was able to transmit the SOS signal. Help came, and they were successfully rescued.

However, not every country and organization adhered to the new standard. Some didn’t adapt too quickly. The Marconi Company was hesitant to give up using the CQD signal. During the titanic tragedy, the Marconi operators initially sent CQD signals after the ship collided with a massive iceberg. It was only when another operator suggested to follow the new standard when SOS was finally sent.

Today, SOS is also widely used for its visual appeal. SOS is a palindrome, meaning it is read the same way forward and backward, same with the words deified, civic, madam, and rotator. Moreover, SOS is also an ambigram, meaning it looks the same way, whether it is right-side-up or upside-down. With that, it is easier for aircraft to read these signals on beaches or snowbanks, whichever direction they approach. Then, send the required help immediately.

More Readings:

SOS (Wikipedia)

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