Today is May Day. The thoughts that cross my mind when I hear the phrase are not those of the gore and blood that the streets of Haymarket in Chicago witnessed this day in 1886 when the police fired on workers agitating for an eight-hour day, killing a dozen strikers.
The May-day has another connotation – totally unrelated to that. It is an international radio-telephone signal word identified as a distress call, sort of an SOS message. It has it origins from French venez m’aider (pronounced ‘venay may-day’) meaning ‘Come help me!’.
Talking of SOS messages, what does SOS stand for? ‘Save Our Souls’ did you say? Or ‘Save Our Ship’? Or ‘Save Our Sailors’? Wrong. Unlike abbreviations that evolve from expansions (which are too clumsy to be handled with ease), these expansions, you may be surprised to know, were ‘invented’ after the ‘abbreviation’ was born. SOS is an example of what they call a backronym.
It is difficult to believe, but SOS has no expansion. There is an interesting, if tragic, story behind it. When Titanic, the huge English passenger liner, hit an iceberg on the 14th April 1912, her ship's telegrapher broadcast a cry for help. As the radio operator on the Californian, a ship only a few miles away, had gone off duty, he never heard the Titanic's distress messages.
More than 1,500 people died. Shaken by the disaster, an international conference decided three months later that at least some ships should be required to have 24-hour radio watches, and adopted ‘SOS’ as the international distress call.
But why SOS? Here’s why. The Morse code initially used by the telegraph and later adopted by the radio officers (nicknamed by sea-dogs as Marconi for obvious reasons) on ships, consists of dots ( . ) pronounced ‘dih’ and dashes ( – ) pronounced ‘daah’. S is represented by three dots and O by three dashes. The operator found that ‘dih-dih-dih, daah-daah-daah, dih-dih-dih’ was a sequence of sounds easy to make. Its unmistakable rhythm made it easy for the person at the other end to identify. Thus it was that the easily recognized SOS came to be adopted universally as a distress signal.
I have been enamored by the telegraph ever since my childhood when I visited my father in his office in Cochin one evening. He was a Telegraph Master in that commercially important port town and there were several ‘telegraph machines’ in his office. The ‘machine’ was nothing but a simple spring-loaded key made of shining brass, mounted on a 3”x5”X1” polished teak wooden piece. Before them sat men and women with queer surnames like Bradbury, D’Couto, Rozario, Gomez and Fernandes. They would be tapping away messages to other cities or decoding the arcane dih- daah-dih from faraway towns into messages. To my young mind, the notion that words could be transformed into metallic sounds and transmitted across the wires to distant destinations where they would be decoded was fascinating, to say the least.
The first time the Morse code was used in public was on the 24th May 1844, when inventor Samuel F B Morse demonstrated his invention to members of Congress by tapping out "What hath God wrought?" on a line from Washington to Baltimore.
It signalled (pun intended) the beginning of a worldwide communications revolution. Here was the cutting edge technology of those times. The telegraph radically changed national and international business, the ways wars were fought and the way news was gathered and disseminated. By 1872, the globe was wound by more than 650,000 miles of overland telegraph wire and 30,000 miles of submarine cable. An estimated 20,000 communities were ‘wired to the world’.
With the invention of the wireless radio telegraph in the 1890s, the reach extended to ships at sea. The first rescue at sea as a result of a wireless distress call came in 1899 off the coast of England, and the use of maritime wireless spread rapidly. But there was a flaw in the system, which was dramatically demonstrated in the Titanic tragedy.
With technological advancement, faster and more reliable means of communication were invented and as time sailed on, the significance of the Morse code dwindled. Radio-telephones, teleprinters, telex machines, fax, cellphones and internet invaded the scene in quick succession. By 1981, radiotelephones were mandatory for commercial ships, making radio telegraphy redundant. As satellite communication has superseded the Morse code, International Maritime Organisation decided to phase out its use progressively. Most countries have already made the switch. Perhaps none of the farewells to Morse code has been so poetic as the French. ‘Calling all,’ a French signal operator at Brittany tapped out on the 31st January 1999, as she signed off, ‘this is our last cry before our eternal silence.’