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SOS is the commonly used description for the international Morse code distress signal (· · · — — — · · ·). This distress signal was first adopted by the German government in radio regulations effective April 1, 1905, and became the worldwide standard under the second International Radiotelegraphic Convention, which was signed on November 3, 1906 and became effective on July 1, 1908. SOS remained the maritime radio distress signal until 1999, when it was replaced by the Global Maritime Distress Safety System. (With this new system in place, it became illegal for a ship to signal that she is in distress in Morse code.) SOS is still recognized as a visual distress signal.
From the beginning, the SOS distress signal has really consisted of a continuous sequence of three-dits/three-dahs/three-dits, all run together without letter spacing. In International Morse Code, three dits form the letter S, and three dahs make the letter O, so "SOS" became an easy way to remember the order of the dits and dahs. In modern terminology, SOS is a Morse "procedural signal" or "prosign", and the formal way to write it is with a bar above the letters: SOS.
In popular usage, SOS became associated with such phrases as "save our ship", "save our souls" and "send out succour". These may be regarded as mnemonics, but SOS does not stand for anything and is not an abbreviation, acronym or initialism. In fact SOS is only one of several ways that the combination could have been written, VTB, for example, would produce exactly the same sound, but SOS was chosen to describe this combination. SOS is the only 9-element signal in Morse code, making it more easily recognisable, as no other symbol uses more than 8 elements.
The use of the SOS signal was first introduced in Germany as part of a set of national radio regulations, effective April 1, 1905. These regulations introduced three new Morse code sequences, including the SOS distress signal.
In 1906, at the second International Radiotelegraphic Convention in Berlin, an extensive collection of Service Regulations was developed to supplement the main agreement, which was signed on November 3, 1906, becoming effective on July 1, 1908. Article XVI of the regulations adopted Germany's Notzeichen (distress signal) as the international standard, reading: "Ships in distress shall use the following signal: · · · — — — · · · repeated at brief intervals". The first ship to transmit an SOS distress call appears to have been the Cunard liner Slavonia on June 10, 1909, according to "Notable Achievements of Wireless" in the September, 1910 Modern Electrics. However, there was some resistance among the Marconi operators to the adoption of the new signal, and, as late as the April, 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic, the ship's Marconi operators intermixed CQD and SOS distress calls. However, in the interests of consistency and water safety, the use of CQD appears to have died out after this point.
In both the April 1, 1905 German law, and the 1906 International regulations, the distress signal was specified as a continuous Morse code sequence of three-dits/three-dahs/three-dits, with no mention of any alphabetic equivalents. However, in International Morse, three dits comprise the letter S, and three dahs the letter O. It therefore soon became common to refer to the distress signal as "SOS." An early report on "The International Radio-Telegraphic Convention" in the January 12, 1907 Electrical World stated that "Vessels in distress use the special signal, SOS, repeated at short intervals." (In American Morse code, which was used by many coastal ships in the United States through the first part of the twentieth century, three dahs stood for the numeral "5", so in a few cases the distress signal was informally referred to as "S5S").
In contrast to CQD, which was sent as three separate letters with spaces between each letter, the SOS distress call has always been transmitted as a continuous sequence of dits-and-dahs, and not as individual letters. There was no problem as long as operators were aware that "SOS" was technically just a convenient way for remembering the proper sequence of the distress signal's total of nine dits and dahs. In later years, the number of special Morse symbols increased. In order to designate the proper sequence of dits-and-dahs for a long special symbol, the standard practice is to list alphabetic characters which contain the same dits-and-dahs in the same order, with a bar atop the character sequence to indicate that there should not be any internal spaces in the transmission. Thus, under the modern notation, the distress signal becomes SOS. (In International Morse, VTB, IJS and SMB, among others, would also correctly translate into the · · · — — — · · · distress call sequence, but traditionally only SOS is used).
It has also sometimes been used as a visual distress signal, consisting of three short, three long, three short light flashes such as from a survival mirror, or with "SOS" spelled out in individual letters, for example, stamped in a snowbank or formed out of logs on a beach. The fact that SOS can be read right side up as well as upside down became important for visual recognition if viewed from above.
The first recorded use of SOS as a distress signal was by the steamer SS Arapahoe on August 11, 1909. The signal was received by the United Wireless Telegraph Company station at Hatteras, North Carolina, and forwarded to the steamer company's offices.
Additional warning and distress signals followed the introduction of SOS. On January 20, 1914, the London International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea adopted the Morse code signal TTT ( — — —), three letter T's (—) spaced correctly as three letters so as not to be confused with the letter O (— — —), as the "Safety Signal," used for messages to ships "involving safety of navigation and being of an urgent character."
With the development of audio radio transmitters, there was a need for a spoken distress phrase, and "Mayday" was adopted by the 1927 International Radio Convention as the equivalent of SOS. For TTT the equivalent audio signal is "Securité" for navigational safety. It is interesting to note that "Mayday" is actually the French "M'aidez (help me)" and that there is a third, lesser after "Securité" distress call: "Panne (French for 'breakdown')" spelt "Pan" in English. French was the international language at the time that these were formalised.
During the Second World War, additional codes were employed to include immediate details about attacks by enemy vessels, especially in the Battle of the Atlantic. The signal SSS signalled attacked by submarines, whilst RRR warned of an attack by a surface raider, QQQ warned of an unknown raider (usually an auxiliary cruiser), and AAA indicated an attack by aircraft. They were usually sent in conjunction with the SOS distress code. All of these codes later switched from three repeats of the letter to four repeats ("RRRR", etc.).
None of these signals were used on their own. Sending SOS as well as other warning signals (TTT, XXX etc.) used similar procedures for effectiveness. These were always followed correctly. Here is an example of an SOS signal; the portions in brackets are an explanation only.
SOS SOS SOS de (this is) GBTT GBTT GBTT (call sign of the QE2 repeated 3 times) Queen Elizabeth 2 (name of ship) psn (position) 49.06.30 North, 04.30.20 West. Ship on fire, crew abandoning ship (nature of distress) AR (end of transmission) K (invitation to reply).
Ships and coastal stations would normally have required quiet times twice an hour to listen for priority signals. However, many merchant vessels carried only one or two radio operators in which case the SOS may not be heard by operators off duty. Eventually equipment was invented to summon off-duty operators by ringing an alarm in the operators berth. This was triggered by the operator of the ship in distress transmitting twelve long dashes of four seconds duration each. These were sent prior to the SOS hopefully ringing the automatic alarm in ships so equipped. If possible a short delay was given before transmission of the SOS proper. This was to give those off watch operators time to get to their radio office.
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