Ti­tanic strug­gle to get mes­sage heard

The SOS dis­tress sig­nal was adopted 100 years ago to­day. KEITH SUTER re­ports on the life-saver

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - - Business Owner -

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.

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