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Wireless Telegraphy Used in the Era of Titanic - 1912

As Aboard the Wrecked Titanic: The Wireless-Telegraphy Room of an Atlantic Liner.

As Aboard the Wrecked Titanic: The Wireless-Telegraphy Room of an Atlantic Liner. The Illustrated London News (4 May 1912) p. 653. GGA Image ID # 10144bcca0

Had it not been for wireless telegraphy, it is more than likely that the disaster to the "Titanic" would not have been known for a considerable time, and that fewer of her passengers would have been saved: thus “wireless" adds another to its triumphs.

It first came into great prominence in such matters when the White Star liner "Republic“ was in collision with the "Florida," for the lives of some 700 people were saved by the arrival of the "Baltic" and the "Lorraine," which raced to the scene of the mishap in answer to the distress signal "C. Q. D." flashed by the "Republic's" Marconi-operator, Jack Binns.

A more recent case was that of the P. and O. steamer "Delhi," which sent wireless messages to Gibraltar when she was wrecked: and there have been numerous others.

British Post Office Engineers Inspect Marconi's Radio Equipment During a Demonstration on Flat Holm Island, 13 May 1897.

British Post Office Engineers Inspect Marconi's Radio Equipment During a Demonstration on Flat Holm Island, 13 May 1897. The transmitter is at centre, the coherer receiver below it, and the pole supporting the wire antenna is visible at top. CC Cardiff Council Flat Holm Project. GGA Image ID # 10e9f6911c

The CQD Signal Was Predecessor to the SOS

As we note elsewhere in this number, "S.O.S." (. . .- - -. . .) has been substituted for “C.Q.D." as the latter set of letters was confused with other code signals. "C.Q.D." used to be interpreted by the operators as "Come Quick Danger" "S.O.S." they interpret as "Saving of Souls."

The range of the "Titanic's" wireless apparatus was 500 miles in the daytime: 1500 miles at night.

Her calls for aid were sent out by the wireless operator, Mr. Jack Phillips

Origin of the SOS Call

Magnetic Detector by Marconi Used During the Experimental Campaign Aboard a Ship in Summer 1902

Magnetic Detector by Marconi Used During the Experimental Campaign Aboard a Ship in Summer 1902, exhibited at the Museo nazionale della scienza e della tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci of Milan. Alessandro Nassiri for Museo nazionale scienza e tecnologia L. da Vinci - Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia "Leonardo da Vinci". GGA Image ID # 10ea6f703a

WHAT do the letters SOS used by ships at sea as a distress call stand for? That is the question which I have been asked a thousand times, says Jack Binns in the New York Tribune.

The answer to it is simple enough, but given the general aptitude to assign a catchphrase to any arbitrary group of letters, a simple explanation will not suffice the average person.

In this case, the letters are associated with the cry "Save our souls!" as far as the public is concerned, while the call CQD, which it superseded, meant "Come quick, danger!" to the layman.

As a matter of cold fact, neither of these two phrases is correct. Unfortunately, it is the truth that both groups of letters were adopted as a matter of expediency and not because of their peculiar susceptibility to dramatic interpretation.

The original CQD was arrived at by the normal process of evolution in the detail work of communication, while SOS was an arbitrary adoption of the first international radiotelegraph convention.

The story of the distress call has never been adequately told, and because of the large number of questions that have been raised on this point, I am going to outlines in this article the history of the important calls.

When wireless telegraphy was first placed into commercial use, the ordinary telegraph and cable systems had been in operation several years and had reached a high state of development.

The operation of the latter systems was governed by an international convention which periodically laid down rules to meet necessary operating requirements.

Among these rules was a series of double letter symbols which were used by operators to facilitate the working of special circuits, and these symbols invariably incorporated the letter Q because it is one of the least used letters in the alphabet, and in the Continental code its dots and dashes are distinctive. In these various groups, there was the signal CQ.

This was used on telegraph lines where more than one station was on the line, and it meant that the operator sending the call wanted every station along the line to listen in to what he was about to say.

Now, most of these operating symbols were adopted by Marconi's new company when it began commercial operation at sea in the year 1902. The call CQ particularly adapted itself to wireless use, because any ship hearing the call would answer and thus establish communication with the vessel making the call.

As the system gradually developed there were several minor emergency calls made, and it was quickly observed that the call CQ was not of sufficient distinction for emergency purposes.

As a result of these experiences the following general order, known as "Circular No. 57," was issued by the Marconi company on January 7, 1904:

"It has been brought to our notice that the call 'CQ' (all stations) while being satisfactory for general purposes, does not sufficiently express the urgency required in a signal of distress.

"Therefore, on and after February 1, 1904, the call to be given by ships in distress or in any way requiring assistance, shall be 'CQD.'

"This signal must on no account be used except by order of the captain of the ship in distress, or other vessels or stations transmitting the signal on account of the ship in distress.

"All stations must recognize the urgency of this call and make every effort to establish satisfactory communication with the least possible delay.

"Any misuse of the call will result in instant dismissal of the person improperly employing it."

This is the exact wording of the famous general order as issued. The original is now framed and exhibited as part of the extensive archives of the Marconi company. It was superseded in July 1908, by the adoption of the call SOS as a distress signal by the International Radio-Telegraphic Convention, which sat in Berlin.

As this convention was not ultimately ratified by all of the nations represented for at least a year, the call CQD remained in force sufficiently long enough to be used in the first significant sea disaster where wireless played an important part.

The call SOS is purely arbitrary in its grouping of letters and was chosen because of the unusual combination of dots and dashes which make it distinctive above all other calls. It consists of three dots, space, three dashes, space, and three more dots.


"S.O.S.—“ Saving of Souls “: Wireless the Alarm-Giver.," in The Illustrated London News, New York: The International News Company, Vol. 50, No. 1304, Saturday, 4 May 1912, p. 653.

Jack Binns, “Origin of the SOS Call,” in Radio World, New York: Hennessy Radio Publication Corporation, Vol. III, No. 16, Whole No. 70, 28 July 1923, p. 21.

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