On August 11, 1909, as his ship struggled off Cape Hatteras, telegraph operator Theodore Haubner had an urgent choice to make: How should he call for help?
Haubner worked the key on the commercial steamship S.S. Arapahoe. His ship had just broken her propeller shaft and was drifting off the North Carolina coast.
For years, ships in trouble had used the telegraph code “CQD,” which means “calling all stations—distress.” But a new code for distress had recently been agreed upon: “SOS.” Would anyone recognize it?
Deciding to split the difference, Haubner signaled SOS as well as CQD—and his ship was picked up just twelve hours later.
Haubner had sent the world’s first SOS signal. He later donated his headphones and telegraph key to The Henry Ford, where they are now on exhibit in our Driving America exhibit.
Wireless telegraphy, perfected only a decade earlier by inventor and entrepreneur Guglielmo Marconi, used radio waves to connect ships with one another as well as with stations on land. In 1904, CQD was adopted by Marconi Company wireless telegraph operators as their emergency signal.
But an international industry would need an internationally standardized emergency signal. At the second International Radiotelegraphic Convention in Berlin, in 1906, participants agreed on SOS as the international distress signal. They chose SOS not because it was an abbreviation for any particular distress call (it does not stand for “save our ship,” as many have thought), but because it was easy to send and receive - three dots, three dashes, three dots. When the Arapahoe was drifting, the signal was just coming into use.
So why are these telegraph artifacts in an exhibit on cars?
When Haubner sent that first SOS in 1909, American culture was adjusting to a feeling of new, wider horizons. Wireless telegraphy was one of many technological marvels making their way into culture and, more slowly, into everyday life. Another of those marvels was the automobile.
Driving America puts cars into the context of these new visions of the future - this optimism that new technology, standardized across the world, could do anything.
Saving a ship was only the beginning.
Suzanne Fischer is the Associate Curator of Technology at The Henry Ford. She typed this post on an 1880s index typewriter and sent it to the blog editor via telex.