It’s May Day…Send Help!

Coast GuardHappy May Day, Modern Philosophers!

As you know, May Day is the Holiday that celebrates the invention of the modern day distress signal.

Believe it or not, Modern Philosophers, there was a time when boats stranded at sea, planes that had gone wildly off course, lost hikers, and people stranded on deserted islands had absolutely no way of letting potential rescuers know that they needed help.

That was until an Irish ham radio operator named Simon O’Shaunnessy came up with the idea of a universal distress signal that could be used and understood by anyone, regardless of what language they spoke.

O’Shannessy drew his inspiration from his ham radio hobby.  He understood that people all over the world could communication with each other via Morse code.

He also realized that the many fisherman who died in boating accidents off the coast of Ireland might have been saved if they had just been able to transmit a message that they were in danger.  Such a message could then be picked up by amateur ham radio operators and relayed to the proper authorities and rescue teams.

Ham RadioSince O’Shaunnessy (that’s him in the photo on the left) came up with the idea, the international distress signal (SOS) was named in his honor.

It is also referred to as a “Mayday” signal since O’Shaunnessy first shared the concept with others on May 1.

The SOS signal is very simple to learn.  In Morse code, it is communicated by three dots, three dashes, and three dots.  This is one of the very first things Morse code operators are taught, and knowing that distress signal is a requirement to earn a Morse code license.

Since not everyone in distress has a radio handy, the international distress signal can be communicated in other ways.

The most popular is the writing of O’Shaunnessy’s initials in large, easy to read letters that can be seen from the air.

Save UsSome creative people, with access to fire, have taken to setting the initials ablaze so that they can be seen at night.

Of course, this method of transmitting the distress signal isn’t as effective as using the radio since it requires someone to actually fly over the area to read it.

In earlier, simpler times, those in distress believed that writing out the SOS sent a message directly to Mr. O’Shaunnessy’s mind through magic or telekinesis.  That theory was not even known, let alone quashed for several years because the people who believed in it, died because no one was aware they needed to be rescued.

However, once authorities realized people believed the SOS message had magic/psychic powers, O’Shaunnessy himself went on the ham radio waves to dispel that myth.

In this more modern technological age, the distress signal is conveyed via the shouting of the word “Help!”continuously and at loud volumes, or by making a cell phone call or sending a tweet to 911 (or your country’s version of that system).  Posting a photo on Instagram is also a very popular way to request help these days.

SOSHowever, Simon O’Shaunnessy’s brainchild is still used, and has been responsible for saving countless lives over the years.

So take a moment on this May Day to raise your glass to the man who came up with a simple, but effective way to rescue those in trouble.

Here’s to you, Simon O’Shaunnessy.  The world is a lot safer because you!

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About Austin

Native New Yorker who's fled to the quiet life in Maine. I write movies, root for the Yankees, and shovel lots of snow.
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10 Responses to It’s May Day…Send Help!

  1. Is it okay if I raise a mug instead? It’s not quite 10:00 a.m. here.
    I had no idea about the story behind S.O.S. Thanks for this post.

  2. Christie says:

    I used to work for a German company and May Day is a HUGE holiday over there, like they get the day off work kind of holiday. It’s more like our Labor Day and lots of drinking is involved….like those wacky Germans need another excuse for drinking! In recognition of my German ancestors though, I will be acknowledging the holiday by sitting on my couch all day. I don’t drink, so hopefully there will be no need to send an S.O.S.

  3. It even had a cameo in one of the Star Treks! 🙂

  4. The joke should have made it in. I laughed again when I saw the blog title. Great info. Thanks. I’m disappointed that just writing S.O.S. won’t relay my message magically though. I’ll have to send it by flying pony I guess.

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