There is a lot of confusion and false information regarding the origin and meaning of the term SOS. Some people say it is the acronym for ‘Save our souls’ while others say it is Save Our Ship’. All of these is not true, but one thing is for certain, it was used as a signal for distress and used a lot by the Marines especially those on the ships to communicate an emergency situation and is based on Morse Code.
Samuel Morse was the father of Morse Code and developed it in 1835, he used dots and dashes to communicate alphabets. Messages were sent through telegraph wires using electric pulses. Dots represented one unit of measurement and dash is considered as three units. A unique mix of dots and dashes represents every alphabet, numerals, and punctuation. Morse created the distress signal CQD where CQ communicated ‘general notice’ which put the receiver in the listening range on alert that a message is coming through the lines. ‘D’ specified Distress and the entire message read as ‘General Notice Distress!’. Morse code was put to practical use at the end of the 19th century by Guglielmo Marconi’ till then the ships were unable to make any contact with other ships or to the shore. Later telegraphers started using Morse Code to send signals.
SOS Stands For:
Until 1904, every country has their own way of communicating danger, Italy used SSSDDD, England worked with CQD and the US used NC, and it turned problematic for marines to communicate danger when outside their shores. At the 2nd Radiotelegraph conference in Berlin 1908, it was finally agreed that SOS was the universal signal for danger. A single string of three dots, three dashes, three dots in sequence became the distress signal accepted by all countries. The major reason for everyone accepting this signal was it was easy to use and unlikely to be misinterpreted. Though adopted by all countries in 1908, the Germans were the first to use this in 1905.
The use of SOS was made official in 1908, but CDQ usage was still existent for many years after that with the British mostly using it. It was documented that Titanic used CDQ first to signal an emergency and later on the suggestion of the Second Radio officer Harold Bride, the first Radio officer used SOS. Unlike the British, the Americans started using the SOS unofficially in 1909. It was used by ship operator of SS Arapahoe for help to find its screw. The official adoption of SOS by America was in 1912.
To conclude, SOS stands for nothing officially and was created unintentionally and is not an acronym for anything. This was chosen as it was a symbol which was easy to use in Morse code and cannot be misinterpreted. These days SOS is also signaled using a flashlight. Three short bursts, three long bursts, and three short bursts are used as an SOS signal. It has now become the best form of signal for emergency and is the easiest to remember and communicate.