Samuel Morse, with beard, near the end of his days.Via Telegraph-History.org
Being an adult is hard. And in our vast techno-digital landscape, there are millions of screaming voices, but too few voices to tell us what we need to know to be proper, respectable grown-ups. To help weed through the noise, Motherboard has partnered with the smart minds at the Stuff You Should Know blog to bring you a weekly column about real life.
It’s pretty obvious that just by being living, attractive people, any one of us could easily end up locked in a trunk and left in a mall parking lot on a hot day. Because of this, knowing Morse code—and more specifically how to spell out SOS—could really come in handy. Really, any established adult living a life that’s even mildly interesting would be well served to walk around with this knowledge at hand.
To begin at the beginning, in the early 19th century an NYU art and design professor named Samuel Morse heard a lecture about electromagnetism. By some strange inspiration, he understood that this fundamental force could be used in communications by sending pulses from one place to another along metal wire. Morse wasn’t the first to figure this out, but he was the one who knew how to lobby Congress to pay for an early telegraph line between Washington, DC and Baltimore. For this reason he is often incorrectly cited as the inventor of the telegraph. In fact, Morse was not even the sole inventor of the code that bears his name.
At any rate, Morse helped come up with a system in which combinations of long or short electromagnetic pulses stand in for letters. Using only the dot and the dash, Morse invented an electronic alphabet to make the telegraph more user friendly and spread the technology to any nation that used the Latin alphabet.
It’s difficult to overestimate the impact the telegraph and Morse code had on the world. It was the founding technology of the Information Age that we live in today. Prior to this, if you wanted to communicate across the US, you literally handed off mail to a man on a fast horse in St. Joe, Missouri, and hoped that he wasn’t murdered on the trail before he could deliver your letter within the estimated 10 day window.
Suddenly, people could communicate from any two places connected by telegraph wire—which, by 1861, included cites in the continents of North America and Europe, thanks to the transatlantic cable. And thanks to the simple structure of Morse code, anyone who could memorize the dot-dash configuration for the 26 letters could be a telegraph operator on a ship or at a train station. Really good operators could send up to 50 words a minute and translate incoming transmissions by ear.
Morse code was also groundbreaking in that it provided the basis for an international distress signal, which we now call SOS. Back at the beginning of the 20th century, different nations and telegraph companies employed different distress signals, so when an operator sent one from a sinking ship all aboard had to hope that the person on the receiving end was familiar with that particular message.
To provide better than a random chance of survival in these situations, Western nations held a convention in 1906 to agree upon a single signal to ask for help that could be used anywhere in the world. Germany’s idea won, a simple and elegant string of three dots, followed by three dashes, followed by three dots. They were easy to remember, easy to produce and, since they didn’t spell anything, wouldn’t be misconstrued.
In Morse code, that particular arrangement of those dots and dashes spells out SMB, VTB, IJS and SOS. None of those, including SOS, has any meaning, and so SOS stands for nothing. All of the acronyms attributed to the letters, including Save Our Souls or Save Our Ship, were made up after the distress signal came into use to fit the SOS letter arrangement, making them what have come to be called backronyms.
And now, armed with this information and a bit of practice tapping out three dots, three dashes and three dots, you can confidently enter just about any situation and know you can surreptitiously call for help from inside a car trunk. The only big issue that remains is whether your erstwhile rescuer will be familiar with Morse code as well.
Stuff You Should Know is the brainchild of Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant. Along with the original podcast, the pair has now expanded into a TV show and blog, all packed with—what else?—stuff you need to know.