People & Events
The First Wireless Distress Signals From Sea
The first wireless distress signal sent from sea was broadcast by a lightship -- a type of vessel which is anchored offshore and used as a communication port or as a "lighthouse" to warn ships of dangerous waters. In December, 1898, "East Goodwin Lightship," anchored off the southeastern coast of England, was struck by the "R. F. Matthews," which had lost its bearings in thick fog. A distress signal was immediately sent by wireless to the shore, and both vessels were secured.
The first wireless distress signal to be sent from an American ship at sea occurred six years later, in 1905. "Relief Ship Number 58," a lightship anchored off Nantucket island, sent out the signal. This lightship hadn't been struck by another vessel; it had been battered by a treacherous coastal storm, causing leakage that threatened to sink the craft.
The wireless operator on board "Relief Ship Number 58" used both International Morse code and American Morse code to transmit his message: "HELP!" A naval radio station in Rhode Island received the distress signal and dispatched the ship "Azalea" to the scene. By the time the "Azalea" arrived, it, too, had been roughed up by the storm. After a five-hour struggle to tow the lightship to shore, its crew-now practically swimming aboard their craft-were transferred to the "Azalea." Ten minutes later, "Relief Ship Number 58" went under.