The History Of Amateur Radio

This portion of my website was prepared with the help of Bill Continelli, W2XOY. Bill has prepared several articles in a series he calls "The Wayback Machine", in the hope to expand the knowledge of fellow hams, about Amateur Radio's unique and unchallenged history.

THE WAYBACK MACHINE #8    by Bill Continelli, W2XOY

OK, as you can probably guess, with all the recent attention on the Vanity Call Sign System, not to mention the half dozen calls that I've held in the past 27 years, this month's Wayback Machine is going to focus on call signs in amateur radio history.

Prior to 1912, getting a call sign was easy, just make one up and get on the air. Legend has it that's how the word "ham" came to mean amateur radio-the letters H-A-M were in fact the initials of the three operators of a powerful station in the early 'teens. With the passage of the Radio Act of 1912, the first licenses were issued. Call signs at that time for "private stations" (amateurs) consisted of a number followed by two (later three) letters, i.e. 1AW, 1TS, 8XK etc.. Other countries adopted this system. This was adequate in the early, spark days of amateur radio, but as the shortwaves were developed, and c.w. became universal, problems appeared. Dave Sumner, Executive Vice President of the ARRL, and Trustee of NU1AW, the station of the International Amateur Radio Union, picks up the story.

"When transoceanic amateur communication started becoming commonplace in 1924, a problem immediately became apparent: call signs were all of the "one numeral followed by two or three letters" format, with no built-in means of determining who was where. At first, an informal system of prefixes (called "intermediates" at the time) was used by amateurs where "a" stood for Australia, "b" for Belgium, "c" for Canada, "f" for France, "g" for Great Britain, "j" for Japan, "u" for United States, "z" for New Zealand, etc. The single-letter system was fine until it became apparent that Amateur Radio was spreading to too many countries for this system to accommodate.

In January 1927 QST, a new intermediate list was unveiled as the work of the Executive Committee of the International Amateur Radio Union. The new list took effect at 0000 GMT (UTC) February 1, 1927. It was a two-letter system with the first letter indicating the continent (E for Europe, A for Asia, N for North America, F for Africa, etc.) and the second letter indicating the country (mostly following the old system). Thus, stations in the 48 United States used the intermediate "NU."

The new system was quickly overtaken by events. The regulations adopted by the Washington International Radiotelegraph Conference later the same year included the allocation of a series of "call signals" such as K, N, and W  for the United States, and mandated that stations have a call signal from the series. The Washington regulations were to become effective on January 1, 1929, but August 1928 QST noted that Canadian amateur calls had changed to VE in April and September 1928 QST announced the effective date of October 1, 1928, in the United States for the W prefix (K outside the 48 states). Thus, United States amateurs sported voluntary NU prefixes for just 20 months before they became Ws.

The founding president of the International Amateur Radio Union was, of course, Hiram Percy Maxim, 1AW, who remained in that office until his death in 1936. The call sign NU1AW commemorates HPM and the IARU's creative, if short-lived, solution to the problem of international identification of stations.

As trustee of NU1AW it is my intention to use the call sign as a "permanent special event station" operating in connection with World Telecommunication Day, significant IARU anniversaries, the IARU HF World Championship, and other events that will call attention to the contributions of the IARU to organized Amateur Radio.
David Sumner, K1ZZ

(My thanks to K1ZZ for allowing me to reprint the above).

Thus, the call sign structure was set up for the rest of the '20's and the 1930's. Stations in the 48 States had a 1x2 or 1x3 callsign beginning with "W" and containing a numeral from 1 to 9. Stations in Alaska, Hawaii, or other U.S. Possessions had a "K" prefix. Incidentally, note that I said 1 thru 9; this is because the numeral -0- WAS NOT available to amateurs at that time. As a result, the call sign districts had different boundaries than they do today; for example, the western sections of New York and Pennsylvania were in the 8th call district then, as opposed to the 2nd and 3rd today.

When amateur radio resumed after World War II, the increased number of amateurs necessitated the addition of the tenth call district and the numeral -0-. Except for the redrawing of the boundaries, things remained the same until 1951-53.

In 1951, the FCC eliminated the old Class A, Class B, and Class C licenses, and replaced them with the Novice, Technician, Conditional, General and Extra Class licenses. (What happened to the Advanced Class? The Wayback Machine will tell you in a few months). With this change came the first "distinctive" call signs. Novices, who at that time could only get a one year, non renewable license, had a special 2x3 call sign with the letter "N" following the "W"; i.e. WN2ODC, WN6ISQ etc.. When  they upgraded, the "N" would be dropped.

This system barely had a chance to settle in before the next change hit in 1953. Due to the increase in the number of amateurs, the FCC was running out of "W" 1x3 call signs. So 1x3 "K" calls began to appear in the 48 states, with the U.S. Possessions receiving 2x2 and 2x3 "K" calls, such as those issued today. Novice calls in the 48 states continued to have the distinctive "N" (such as KN4LIB) which disappeared upon upgrading.

Barely 5 years later, the growth of amateur radio, particularly in the 2nd and 6th call districts, caused another problem for the FCC, they were running out of "K" and "W" calls. So, in 1958, the FCC began issuing 2x3 "WA" calls, to be followed by "WB" when necessary. For some reason, Novices under this new system were given "WV" instead of "WN" as their prefix. The "V" would change to an "A" or "B" upon upgrading. (After only a few years of this, the FCC decided that their original idea was better, and went back to the Novice "N" prefix). With the uneven amateur population in the ten call districts, it took time for the "K" calls to run out in the other areas. As late as 1964, you could still get a "K" call in the 1st, 3rd or 7th call areas, while the 2nd and 6th districts were well into the "WB"'s.

The 60's had some other call sign oddities. For a period of time, you could hold BOTH a Novice and Technician Class license simultaneously; the FCC gave you 2 call signs at once (such as WA/WN2ORS) and you used the appropriate call based on the amateur band and your privileges on it. The FCC also allowed you to have two calls if you maintained two homes in separate call areas; for example, Senator Barry Goldwater, K7UGA, also held K3UIG which he used while he was in Washington. (In theory, under this system, an amateur could hold four call signs if he/she had a Novice/Technician license and two separate addresses).

Except for the Novice and the distinctive "N", there was no way under this system to tell what class of license an amateur held. As older hams became Silent Keys and the number of available 1x2 calls slowly increased, the FCC instituted a program whereby those who held an Extra Class license for more than 25 years would be eligible for a 1x2. The length of time one needed to be an Extra was gradually reduced, until July 1977, when any Extra Class could apply for a 1x2.

There was one block of call signs that were unavailable to ANY amateur, regardless of license class. These were calls in which the suffix began with "X", such as W1XW, W3XCV, WB6XXK etc.. The FCC reserved these calls for experimental stations; for example, W2XB, W2XOY, W1XMN and KE2XCC were originally call signs of early TV and FM broadcast stations. While the FCC has relaxed their position on the 1x2 and 1x3 "X" suffix calls, the 2x3 call signs (such as KA6XYZ) are still reserved for experimental use.

By the mid 70's the 2nd, 4th, 6th and 8th call areas had run out of "WB"'s. For a period of time, the FCC recycled older "WA" and "WB" calls that had been vacated, but when those ran out, they went to "WD"'s. Before the "WD" prefix could become popular, however, an incident occurred that would change the whole call sign structure.

In early 1977, an FCC employee was indicted for taking bribes offered by amateurs wanting special call signs. He was convicted and sent to jail. Partly as a result of this scandal, the FCC on February 23, 1978, adopted the call sign structure we have in place today. For 18 years, until the opening of the Vanity System, it had been impossible to request a specific individual or club call.  Given the passionate love affair that some of us have with our calls, the FCC stands to make millions.

So, as you contemplate the call of your dreams, Form 610V in hand, take a moment to tune in NU1AW and work a piece of history. Meanwhile, the Wayback Machine is preparing for it's next journey to another moment in amateur radio history. I hope you're on board.

Copyright 1996, 2001, 2005 by William Continelli, W2XOY

All rights reserved.

These columns were originally written for the Schenectady Museum Amateur Radio Club.