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Tuesday, July 26, 2005
Although you may have heard that the letters SOS stand for "Save Our Souls", "Save Our Ship", or "Save Our Succor", none of these is true. The letters stand for absolutely nothing.

Samuel F.B. Morse invented the telegraph, which allowed messages to be transmitted over wires. The concept of his invention was that when electricity flows in a wire, it can be detected and converted to sound; when there is no flow of electricity, there had to be a method of making sense out of the sound/no sound feature.

Morse devised a code consisting of dots and dashes, which today is known as the Morse code. If the transmitter is turned on for an instant, the result is a dot,. It is is turned on for a longer time, the result is a dash. Each letter of of the alphabet had a code, such as "dot,dash" for the letter. A and "dot,dot.dot" for the letter S When transmitting the code, each letter is separated by a time interval equal to three dots, and each word is separated by a time interval equal to seven dots.

During its day, Morse's system was praised as "the instantaneous highway of thought".

Some time later, Guglielmo Marconi invented wireless telegraphy to our modern radio communications. Because it transmitted a single tone, it required far less power than voice transmission and so could be sent over much greater distances. The signal was simply turned off or on to follow the cite invented by Morse.

Although most authorities credit Marconi as the inventor of the radio, in 1943 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Marconi's patents were invalid due to Nikola Tesla's previous descriptions.

In the early 1900s many wireless telegraphy operators on ships were former railroad or postal telegraphers. If an operator wanted to send out one message and make sure that all stations heard it, he would begin the message with the letters, CQ, which meant "all stations". The operator would do this when sending out time signals or other general notices.

In 1904 it was suggested that CQD should be used as a distress signal. In other words, "all stations, distress". A few years later, the Berlin Radiotelegraphic Conference brought up the subject of an international distress signal. After a lengthy discussion, it was agreed SOS would be the news distress signal. Parricipants thought that if three dots, three dashes, and three dashes, and three dots were sent as single string, it could not be misunderstood.

The first recorded use of the SOS distress signal by an American ship was in August 1909, when the SS Arapahoe radioed for help after losing its screw off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. A few months later, the Arapahoe's radio operator picked up an SOS signal from the SS Iroquois. The Arapahoe's radio operator was thus the first person to both send out an SOS from an American sip and to receive an SOS from an American ship.

Even after the invention of the telephone in 1864, the telegraph was the world's primary forms of telecomunications for over 50 years.

When the Titanic sent out its first distress signal, it was CQD followed by MGY, which were the Titanic's call letters. After sending out CQD a numbner of times, the radio operator then sent an SOS. Subsequent calls were CQD's interspersed with SOS's.

Morse code could be considered the percursor of modern computer codes. The telegraph signal was either on or off. A modern computer in the same way, using a binary code consisting of a "1" (on) or "O" (off).

The inventor of the Morse code, Samuel Morse, was not an engineer. He was a Massachusetts portrait painter.

If you ever visit the U.S. Capitol building, be sure to look at the Rotunda. One of the figures in the center of the Italian artists Constatino Brumide's beautiful fresco is none other Than Samuel F.B. Morse.


The code that Morse created in 1832 died a quiet death 165 years later. In 1997 Morse code ceased to be the official internationl language of distress, being replaced by much more sophisticated satellite-based "Mayday" electronic systems. (Mayday is derived from the French word m'iadez which means "help me")

Morse code may be dead, but it's not buried yet. Amateur radio operators use it quite often, especially in times of disaster when either forms of communications are not available.

The military also maintains a Morse code capability. Billion dollar satellites can malfunctions or be jammed and sophisticated round network can break down during a battle. As a contingency, every year the U.S. army trains 2,800 soldiers to become proficient in Morse code. Every U.S. merchant ship must have onboard a radio officer who can transmit and receive Morse code. In fact, while at sea the officer must spend eight hours a day monitoring the radio for Morse code distress calls.

Many military messages end with the phrase "Over and out".

(abstracted from the compilation of Bill McClain from his book: WHAT MAKES FLAMINGOS PINK)
posted by infraternam meam @ 1:32 AM  
  • At 5:30 PM, Blogger aa said…

    The only time I spent learning Morse Code was in my boy scout years in elementary. Good thing you posted it. I wonder what's new with it, ie Morse Code, if new things have been added like security, encryption, etc...

  • At 4:05 AM, Blogger infraternam meam said…

    aa..you can send ur questions to

  • At 4:01 PM, Blogger aa said…

    thanks i.f.m.

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About Me: I am now at the prime of my life and have been married for the past 25 years. Sickly at times, but wants to see the elixir vita, so that I will be able to see my grandchildren from my two boys.
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