Language problems in CQD


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Paul Lee

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Just think: in this day and age, all air traffic controllers have to speak english.

In 1912, this may have been different. Imagine that you only spoke Spanish for instance and received a message with the letters CQD or SOS. Now, you may have recognised that it as a distress call. You may even have recognised the call sign and/or the position. But what do you do then? Inform the captain and send a morse message in your native tongue that others wouldn't understand? Or do you keep quiet, listen to the traffic and try and get to the location as fast as possible?

In short: was there any regulation of languages in morse traffic as there is in aircraft comms. these days?

Best wishes

Paul

 
Jul 9, 2000
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There are regulations out the wazoo about anything having to do with communications, and radio is no different. The catch is that in 1912, there wasn't all that much regulation at all, beyond what the wireless companies put out. This was to become one of the issues ultimately addressed by both inquiries.

If you want some more in depth details on the rules in force at the time, you might want to parse the inquiries and also wait for some of the resident radio researchers...like Parks Stephenson to speak up. This isn't really an area I've done a lot of digging around in.
 
Mar 3, 1998
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Paul,

Before the Titanic disaster, International Radiotelegraphic conferences were held in 1903 and 1906 to establish certain standards for communication. Prior to this, different nations and different telegraphic companies had their own unique codes. In America, the original Morse code was different from the Continential code used by the European nations. Despite the 1903 and 1906 conferences, some of the unique codes remained in use; hence, the switching between CQD (a signal invented by Marconi for use in his system) and SOS (a signal invented by the International conference) while Titanic was sinking.

Use was one thing, recognition was another. Most telegraph operators knew enough of the other codes to communicate. Remember, most messages were transmitted using cyphers, not spelled out letter-by-letter. A cypher can mean the same thing in different languages. "D-D-D" was not an internationally- (or even British-) recognised code for "Shut up!," but Cyril Evans had no trouble understanding what it meant.

The rules of the International conferences were tightened up and more strictly enforced after the Titanic disaster, starting with the conference held in July 1912. Among other things, the Marconi codes faded away and America switched to what soon became known as the International Code. The rules were largely in place in 1912, but the Titanic disaster prompted people to enforce and obey them.

Parks
 

Paul Lee

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Hi Parks,
Very illuminating! Was it a mandate in 1912 that all wireless operators had to understand English? Thats what I am interested in.

If you were foreign, you may be able to pick up a few words, but most of a message would be gibberish, unless, like today's air traffic controllers, there was some standard adherence to a "common" language?

Best wishes

Paul

 

Dave Gittins

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Parks, I have the rules from a somewhat later period. They say that the reply to a distress signal must be (after the usual call signs) RRR, followed by the name of the ship, its position and the speed at which it is coming. All very obvious and requiring no particular language.

Are we to take it that similar rules applied in 1912 but were not followed very strictly?
 
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Let me repeat...most messages were transmitted using cyphers, not spelled out letter-by-letter. A cypher can mean the same thing in different languages. You can create entire messages without having to resort to letter-by-letter spelling.

English was not mandated as the standard language of communication. The French, especially, would not have abided by such a rule. However, there were message formats and cyphers agreed upon that standardised communications to a certain extent. The Postmaster-General regulations of 1909 (which regulated British marine stations) include give the English translation for cyphers, but there are also a few that remain in French.

This attempt at standardising telegraphic communication started in 1903. However, U.S. operators were unwilling to use the Continental code (Titanic example: Carpathia's troubles in talking with the USS Chester). French operators insisted on transmitting plain-text messages in French (Titanic example: the La Touraine ice warnings). Marconi operators continued to use the cyphers developed by Marconi himself, even though they were aware of the international agreements (Titanic example: Bride suggesting using SOS instead of CQD). In other words, despite international conferences, operators continued to largely do their own thing until two things happened to change things forever...the Titanic disaster and WW1. The disaster caused people to sit up and take notice, but it was really the nationalisation of all wireless stations (amateur and commercial) by the warring countries of WW1 that imposed discipline on the system.

Parks
 

Dennis Smith

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Aug 24, 2002
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Hi all,

When I was a serving R/O , as Parks stated, anyone could communicate with anyone using morse as the Morse Code obviously had been standardised.
Again as Parks stated codes had been developed so that even if the operator could not speak English he (or she) would understand exactly what was required or being asked. The form of these codes were 3 letter groups all starting with the letter "Q", unsurprisingly they were known as "Q Codes". They were a pain in the butt to learn, but learn them we did because any mistake in the distress section of the exams meant instant failure, the exams for general Q Code usage was a bit easier, I think we were allowed 4 mistakes before failure.

Here are a few examples (out of the 150 plus codes)

QRA? - What is the name of your ship or station?
QRA - The name of my ship or station is ....

QRT - Quiet, stop sending

QTO - I am leaving .. (Name of port)

QTP - I am entering .. (Name of Port)

QODx? Can you communicate with me in x language. x was a number from 0 to 6. eg. 0 was Dutch.(Can't remember the others)

From the above you could get QOD0(x2)? which we reckoned meant can you communicate with me in double Dutch.

There were many Distress Q Codes to cover almost any eventuality so nearly everything required could be understood by someone who could not understand a word of English.

Hope this helps

Rgds and Best wishes

Dennis
 
Mar 3, 1998
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Dennis,

The Q codes went back at least as far as 1909, which is the earliest Postmaster-General regulations I have a copy of. Phillips and Bride must have known about the Q codes ("cyphers" in the older terminology), but Bride mentions none of them in his testimony; instead, he talks about Marconi cyphers.

When Geoffrey Marcus wrote "The Maiden Voyage," he assumed that Titanic communicated using Q codes, which is an entirely logical assumption to make. Geoffrey made an educated guess that Titanic would have sent "QRT" to the Californian to shut her up, but Bride tells us that Phillips instead used "D...D...D." There was a definite need for standardisation.

Parks
 

Dennis Smith

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Parks,

Cheers for that info, I must admit I thought that the "Q Code" system was one of the things implemented after the disaster. If you remember, I mentioned in a long ago post, that one of my lecturers was sailing as R/O in the late 20's and he said the Q codes were about in that era, and I just presumed that ..... well, it's not often I'm right, but I was wrong again.

Still it's good to know that even that long ago someone had got the idea to overcome the language barrier.

As I said in my post, the Q codes were a real pain to learn, 'cause in most things you learn parrot fashion you try to find a link between what you are trying to remember and its meaning - I found no way of doing this ie. IF QSD meant - I need a doctor or medical help - it would be easy to remember it as Quick Send Doctor. There was the odd one you could link like this but they were very few and far between.

Thanks for the reply Parks, much appreciated,

Best 73's
- ..- ... . . ..-

Tks

Dennis
 
Mar 3, 1998
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Dennis,

Of course you're not wrong. The Q codes might have pre-dated WW1 and Titanic, but there's not much use for that little bit of trivia if the codes didn't see widespread use until after the Great War.

73,
Parks
 

Paul Lee

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Thanks for your interesting posts - I meant to reply weeks ago!

Does this all mean that messages such as "we have struck an iceberg" and "we are putting passengers off in boats" were transmitted by cypher? Thats what I am getting at!

Paul

 

Dennis Smith

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Aug 24, 2002
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Paul,

No, not specifically "We have hit an iceberg", but the Distress Q codes cover most relevant things. If you are the ship in distress it really doesn't matter what you have hit, the important thing is you are sinking and require aid as soon as poss. Same for the ship speeding to help they don't really care if you've hit an iceberg or a block of flats, they only care that you are sinking or in imminent danger of sinking.

I'll have a look for my Handbook for Radio Officers and if I can find it I'll give you more info on the distress Q codes.

Best Wishes and Rgds

Dennis
 

Paul Lee

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Hi Dennis et al.,
Do you know if the same cypher codes were used in other wireless fleets, such as DeForrest?

Best wishes

Paul

 

Dennis Smith

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Aug 24, 2002
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Hi Paul,

The Q codes were an international form of signalling and as such all ships that were fitted with wireless equipment would have had to use the same ones. There may well have been some form of cypher for passing private info between ships of the same fleet or ships fitted with same Radio gear, such as Marconi or in your instance DeForrest.

Hope this helps.

BTW haven't found my Radio Handbook yet, but I'll carry on looking.

Best Wishes and Rgds

Dennis
 
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