Unlocking the mystery of CQD

CQD lock, image courtesy of Bill Liles.

CQD lock, image courtesy of Bill Liles.

A good friend sent the image above, knowing it would be of interest and hoping I could find out more about the unusual lock in question which shows a ship sending out the emergency signal “CQD” wirelessly with the wireless signal being depicted as akin to lightning bolts emerging from the ship’s aerial.

Dating the lock is relatively easy as the use of “CQD” as the emergency signal over the more familiar and later “SOS” instantly dates the lock to approximately the first decade of the twentieth century.

“CQD” was the emergency wireless signal suggested by the Marconi International Maritime Company around February 1904 and adopted by most other British wireless companies at around this time. Like many of the signalling practices in the embryonic field of wireless communications at the turn of the twentieth century, CQD had it’s origins in the older electrical telegraph practices with “CQ” being the general call and “D” being shorthand for “distress” or “danger.”

At the 1906 Radiotelegraph Conference held in Berlin in October and November 1906, a number of important decisions were made about international regulations for wireless communications. The key decision was agreement to the principle of intercommunication, that is communication between wireless systems operated by different wireless companies, which had been strongly opposed by the Marconi Company who believed this principle strongly threatened their monopolistic goals as well as their patent rights. Meanwhile, the principle of intercommunication was strongly supported by many other nations at the conference in particular Germany.

"NC" distress flag. Image available in the public domain.

“NC” distress flag. Image available in the public domain.

Another discussion at the 1906 conference which fell along broadly national lines was that of the international standard for wireless distress signal.

  • The German contingent proposed “SOS”, this being an adaptation of their original distress signal “SOE” with the terminal “S” (3 dots) making a more distinctive signal and the “SOS” signal had been adopted by Germany as their nationally recognised distress signal a year previously in April 1905
  • The British delegates proposed “CQD” which, as mentioned previously, had been proposed and popularised by the Marconi Company, then Britain and the world’s largest wireless company
  • Meanwhile, the delegates from the United States suggested “NC,” this being shorthand for “Call for help without delay” which was not widely considered at the 1906 conference but which continues to be used as the international flag signal for distress.
Morse Code Signals: SOS and CQD. The illustration shows the dashes and dots that make up the international call for help at sea.  Image available in the public domain.

Morse Code Signals: SOS and CQD. The illustration shows the dashes and dots that make up the international call for help at sea. Image available in the public domain.

Ultimately, the German proposal of “SOS” was agreed to at the 1906 conference but took a while to be adopted. For example, the Marconi Company wireless operators used both “CQD” and “SOS” when sending out their desperate emergency messages after the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg in April 2012. At the 1912 Radiotelegraphic Conference held in London in June and July 1912 held a mere few months after the sinking of the Titanic, maritime safety came to the fore and the “SOS” signal was determined to be the sole emergency wireless distress signal.

CQD lock, image courtesy of Bill Liles.

CQD lock, image courtesy of Bill Liles.

So, if the lock shown at can be dated to approximately between 1904 and 1912, then is there a particular event it may be depicting?  Well yes – one of the most well-known (if not the best-known) use of “CQD” between 1904 and 1912 and was on 23 January 1909 when the White Star Line vessel RMS Republic (with a Marconi wireless operator on board) collided with the Italian liner the SS Florida in fog off the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts.  The passengers of the RMS Republic were rescued by the many vessels which answered her “CQD” distress call but the ship sank a day later while being towed to New York.

A year later in 1910, US hardware company Simmons Hardware Company began offering the CQD lock in question for sale in their trade catalogues and, with some artistic licence particularly in terms of the funnels (the RMS Republic had a single funnel rather than the two apparently depicted on the lock), the similarity between the RMS Republic and the ship shown on the lock is noticeable.

rms_republic

SS Republic

Although not related to the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the company continued to sell the lock in the aftermath of the sinking and through until around the time of US entry into World War One in 1917 when padlocks depicting wireless distress messages were less desirable and as “CQD” was completely replaced by “SOS.”

These beautifully crafted antique padlocks do occasionally come up for sale on eBay and mark a fascinating insight into the changing practices and politics surrounding wireless communications and maritime safety in the early years of the twentieth century.

By Elizabeth Bruton.

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