Titanic struggle to get message heard
The SOS distress signal was adopted 100 years ago today. KEITH SUTER reports on the life-saver
The SOS signal is a simple way of saving lives but its adoption was not plain sailing. It took a few tragedies, including the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, to force governments and merchant fleets to accept it fully.
The SOS Morse Code signal (three dots, three dashes, three dots, issued continuously without any break between them) was adopted at the 1906 Second International Conference on Wireless Telegraphy in Berlin on October 3, 1906. (The first one had been held in 1903, also in Berlin). The international conference sought to standardise maritime radio procedures.
The SOS initials do not stand for anything in particular. They do not, for example, mean Save Our Souls, Save Our Ship or Save Our Sailors. And as Morse Code is an international language, the meaning of the initials SOS would have changed from language to language if they did stand for something.
Thesignal was adopted because it was easy to remember, easy to transmit and had a ring to it.
Stations hearing an SOS call were to immediately cease handling their own radio traffic until the emergency was over. The SOS distress call was to take priority over all other traffic.
The first country to use SOS was Germany. It adopted SOS as the distress signal in its national radio regulations from April 1, 1905 (more than a year before hosting the international conference).
The 1906 treaty covers many matters of maritime safety and runs to 114 pages. It came into effect on July 1, 1908. The British government signed the treaty but was slow to ensure implementation of it. Britain may not have liked accepting ideas from Germany, a rising rival maritime power.
Additionally, a British company was a leading telegraph operator and had its own arrangements. The Irish-Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, based in Britain, was a pioneer of wireless telegraphy — sending Morse Code messages through the air rather than along telegraph wires.
Morse Code itself pre-dates wireless telegraphy. The New York painter and inventor Samuel Morse devised the system in 1835 to harness breakthroughs in the field of electro-magnetism so that messages could be transmitted, or telegraphed, along wires. The first telegraph line opened in the US in 1844. Telegraphy took to the air in 1896, when Marconi demonstrated its wireless form in England.
The first use of wireless in communicating distress came in March 1899. The East Goodwin Lightship, marking the southeastern English coast, was rammed in the fog by the R.F. Matthews. A distress call was transmitted to a shore station and help was dispatched.
By 1904, many ships on the transAtlantic run had the new wireless communications. The operators often came from the ranks of railway and postal telegraphers.
In Britain, a general call on the landline wire was ‘‘ CQ’’. It preceded time signals and special notices. This was the warning to all stations that something important was coming along the wire.
On January 7, 1904, the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. instructed that CQD become the distress signal for its international system. CQD meant ‘‘ All stations attend: Distress’’ (and not, as was widely believed, ‘‘ Come Quickly, Distress’’ or ‘‘ Come Quickly, Danger’’). TheD was added to signal extra urgency. The signal was dash dot dash dot, dash dash dot dash, dash dot dot.
The first recorded use of SOS was in August 1909. Wireless operator T.D. Haubner radioed for help when his ship, the Arapahoe, sailing between New York and Florida, ran into trouble off the North Carolina coast. The distress call worked even though the US did not accept the SOS procedure fully until 1912 (it was slow to adopt international treaties).
The year 1906 should have seen the effective end of CQD and the introduction of SOS. But the British continued with CDQ as well as SOS.
The most notorious case at this time involving CDQ and SOS occurred on April 15, 1912, when the Titanic hit an iceberg and started sinking. The Titanic was not (as was commonly believed) the first vessel to use SOS, but it was one of the first British vessels to do so.
The Titanic’s senior wireless operator, Jack Phillips, tapped out both CDQ and SOS calls. He continued to do so long after the captain told him to leave his post. Phillips went down with the ship.
The nearest ship was the Californian, about 10 miles away. But it had its wireless system turned off and could not receive the distress signals. Had the California received the signals there would have been a far smaller loss of life (1500 people out of a total of about 2250).
Crew of the Californian saw the Titanic distress flares in the sky but assumed the Titanic was having a party. It was legal then to use distress flares as fireworks. The lack of regulations governing safety at sea and wireless communications contributed to the tragedy.
Besides, the owners of the Titanic had boasted that it was the best ship afloat and that it was unsinkable, so no one would have thought it possible it could be in trouble. It was a calm, clear night, ideal for sailing.
The marine environment was another reason for the tragedy. Looking to make the most of the good weather, the Titanic’s Captain E.J. Smith was trying to break the ocean-crossing speed record, set by the Titanic’s sister ship Olympic.
Luckily, 58 miles away was the Carpathia. It received the distress signals (via the Marconi shore station on Newfoundland) and sailed immediately to the scene of the tragedy. It took two hours to arrive, by which time the Titanic had sunk. It was able to rescue 705 passengers and crew in lifeboats.
The loss of the Titanic triggered wide-ranging government inquiries in the US and Britain, in an effort to avoid a repeat of the tragedy.
In July 1912, Britain hosted the Third International Radio-Telegraphic Conference. This created a clearer system of regulations for wireless services aboard ships and shore stations.
In November 1913, Britain also hosted the Safety Of Life At Sea Conference, which created farreaching regulations governing all ships at sea. For example, the Titanic was short of lifeboats (it had a lifeboat capacity of only 1200 for a ship certified to carry 3500 passengers). Before this conference the British formula for lifeboats was based on the ship’s tonnage rather than the number of passengers.
The 1906 regulations have been updated and expanded. They are now called the Radio Regulations and they are still saving lives.