Amateur Radio

Distress calls - CQD, SOS etc

The first use of wireless in communicating the need for assistance came in March of 1899. The East Goodwin Lightship, marking the southeastern English coast, was rammed in a fog in the early morning hours by the SS R. F. Matthews. A distress call was transmitted to a shore station at South Foreland and help was dispatched.

By 1904 there were many trans-Atlantic British ships equipped with wireless. The wireless operators came from the ranks of railroad and postal telegraphers. In England a general call on the landline wire was a "CQ." "CQ" preceded time signals and special notices. "CQ" had been generally adopted by telegraph and cable stations all over the world. Naturally, "CQ," went with the operators to sea and was likewise used for a general call. This sign for "all stations" was adopted soon after wireless came into being by both ships and shore stations.

At the first international congress of wireless telegraphy in 1903, the Italians recommended the use of "SSSDDD" to be used to signal an emergency. Its use would signal all other stations to stop sending and leave the channel open for emergency traffic. Though discussed, it was not adopted. Decision making on distress signals was put on the agenda for the next meeting in 1906.

In 1904, the Marconi company filled the gap by suggesting the use of "CQD" for a distress signal. Although generally accepted to mean, "Come Quick Danger," that is not the case. It is a general call, "CQ," followed by "D," meaning distress. A strict interpretation would be "All stations, Distress."

At the second Berlin Radiotelegraphic Conference 1906, the subject of a danger signal was again addressed. The Germans had used "SOE" as a general inquiry call and suggested its adoption as a distress call internationally. Considerable discussion ensued and there was objection because the final letter was a single dot, hard to copy in adverse conditions. The letter "S" was substituted; the thinking was that three dots, three dashes and three dots could not be misinterpreted. It was to be sent together as one string. (The American distress signal "NC" for "Call for help without delay" was not adopted, although it remains as the international flag symbol for distress to this day.)

The Marconi Yearbook of Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony, 1918 states, "This signal [SOS] was adopted simply on account of its easy radiation and its unmistakable character. There is no special signification in the letter themselves, and it is entirely incorrect to put full stops between them [the letters]." All the popular interpretations of "SOS," "Save or Ship," "Save Our Souls," or "Send Out Succour" are simply not valid. Stations hearing this distress call were to immediately cease handling traffic until the emergency was over and were likewise bound to answer the distress signal.

Although the use of "SOS" was officially ratified in 1908, the use of "CQD" lingered for several more years, especially in British service where it originated. It is well documented in personal accounts of Harold Bride, second Radio Officer, and in the logs of the SS Carpathia, that the Titanic first used "CQD" to call for help. When Captain Smith gave the order to radio for help, first radio officer Jack Phillips sent "CQD" six times (first time 10.35 New York time) followed by the Titanic call letters, "MGY." 20 minutes later, at Brides suggestion, Phillips interspersed his calls with "SOS." In 'SOS to the Rescue', 1935, author Baarslag notes, "Although adopted intentionally in 1908, it [SOS] had not completely displaced the older 'CQD' in the British operators' affections." (It is interesting to note that Marconi was waiting in New York to return home to England on the Titanic.)

The first use of wireless in the rescue of an American ship was in 1905. Off Nantucket, the operator of Relief Ship No. 58, a light ship, sent "HELP" in International Morse and American Morse. (Trans Atlantic ships used International Morse and coastal ships used American Morse. The use of American Morse on seagoing vessels ceased in 1912 although it survived for many years on the Great Lakes.) A Naval Radio Station in Rhode Island answered the "HELP" call.

The first recorded use of "CQD" by an American ship was in 1908 by the steamer Santa Rosa off the coast of California. Commander Richard Johnstone records this in his memoir My San Francisco Story of the Waterfront and the Wireless, 1965. The first recorded American use of "SOS" was in August of 1909. Wireless operator T. D. Haubner of the SS Arapahoe radioed for help when his ship lost its screw new Diamond Shoals, sometimes called the "Graveyard of the Atlantic." The call was heard by the United Wireless station "HA" at Hatteras. A few months later, the SS Arapahoe received an "SOS" distress call from the SS Iroquois. Radio Officer Haubner therefore has the distinction of being involved in the first two incidents of the use of "SOS" in America, the first as the sender and the second as the receiver. The U.S. did not officially adopt "SOS" until 1912, being slow to adopt international wireless standards.

The sinking of the SS REPUBLIC by the SS FLORIDA in 1909 SW off the Nantucket Lightship is often quoted as an early use of radio in maritime distress as the first "that really mattered" (i.e., with the imminent prospect of heavy loss of life), or refered to Radio Operator Binn's signal as "the first by a Marconi operator" but:

  New York Times, 9 December 1903

  Red Star Liner First to Use Wireless
  Telegraphy in Distress

  QUEENSTOWN, Dec. 8 - The Red Star steamer Kroonland, which
  sailed from Antwerp on Dec. 5 for New York, communicated
  by wireless telegraphy with Brow Head at 4:30 this afternoon.

  She was then seventy-eight miles west of Fastnet, returning
  to Queenstown with her steam tiller smashed and her steering
  gear disabled.  The vessel was steering with the use of her
  engines.  The weather was hazy and a moderate gale was blowing.

  The Kroonland, one of the four of the Red Star Line recently
  equipped with the Marconi system, makes first use of it in

Besides "CQD" and "SOS," "XXX" was used as an urgent signal, being less urgent than "SOS." "TTT" was used as a safety signal to precede ice, storm and other navigational warnings including coastal artillery practice. "MEDICO" was used by ships without a doctor seeking medical advice from another ship or shore station.

Current revision February 4, 1999
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