Radio Room on Titanic

Titanic Radio Room

False distress calls are costing tax payers millions each year and places equipment and operators in possible jeopardy.

The topic of discussion at a ham radio club meeting was on distress communications. I was not able to attend but after the meeting I was listening to the repeater and while working. One of the hams that had been at that meeting started calling “Mayday” just trying to be funny. Either the speaker missed a very important part of his subject or someone was not listening when he did. Others came on and they were all joking around about the whole thing when I broke in to let the one who had called Mayday that he had just violated a very serious federal law.

Distress calls are serious business. In the United States of America a false distress call can result in 6 years in a federal prison plus $250,000 in fines. On top of that some states, if they render state assistance, can charge the person making such a call for the cost to the state for responding and that can add up to several thousands of dollars.

That is enough threats now for some information about distress.

After Marconi revealed his invention to the world the shipping industry was quickly saw how valuable this new device could be. By sending and receiving messages via land stations they could improve their efficiency in transporting cargo. The radio operators came from the most likely source, the land telegraph operators.

The railroad telegraphers and the message wiring companies had adopted a special code which was used to notify that this message was for everyone listing. It was CQ. When they went aboard ships they naturally used the same code. When in distress most operators would add a D to the end of CQ making it CQD. There was no official standard so other operators used DDD instead of CQD. There was some confusion so at the second Berlin Radiotelegraphic Conference 1906 the subject was discussed at length. The conference finally accepted that SOS would be the acceptable international distress calling signal.

Some think SOS was chosen to mean Save Our Soles, and others argue that it means Save Our Ship but the truth is it doesn’t mean either. The Marconi Yearbook of Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony, 1918 made it very clear with these words, “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 three letters).” SOS is a single character not three separate letters (not … /—/… but …—…).

Though SOS was officially recognized as in 1906 it was not until 1912 that it was used for the first time. The Titanic was the first vessel to use SOS though the operator also used DDD. DDD SOS  was still used when I was in the Coast Guard in the 1960’s for a rebroadcast of a distress signal. I personally have send DDD SOS  messages.

Voice communications became possible and this required a voice equivalent to the Morse SOS call. The French expression “M’aidez” (which means “come help me” though apparently not grammatically correct) was considered. The word took on a more English sound and thus became Mayday (one word).

If you are discussing a holiday which comes on the first of May it would be best to avoided calling it “May Day”. Someone who does not speak English may have no idea what you are saying but hear and recognize that word “Mayday”. Just don’t use those two words together on the radio unless there is a real distress.

Distress means eminent danger to life. My car won’t start and I need a tow is not a distress. My car is hanging over a cliff and may plunge over the edge at any time and I can’t get out is a distress.

If you are in a genuine distress and you have a radio transmitter available that you are not licensed to use don’t hesitate. Use it anyway; it is legal to use any means of communication available to call for assistance during a legitimate distress. Just be sure it is a legitimate distress.


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