Monday, December 07, 2009

Usage of Callsigns-Mixed Number and Letters

What is the origin for the system of radio station callsigns that are in use throughout the world to this day? How come some stations are identified with just alphabetic letters only? And other stations are identified with both numbers and letters?

Way back 150 years ago, in the early days of telegraphy by Morse Code, the operators at each station that was connected by telegraph wire used a simple abbreviation to identify the sending station, rather than laboriously spelling out the location name. The usage of many abbreviations enabled the operators to send their messages more quickly.

Some 50 years later, when wireless stations were erected for the transmission of messages by Morse Code, the same procedures were followed; that is, the usage of as many abbreviations as possible, including an abbreviation for the sending location. Some abbreviations for the locations of very early wireless stations were quite logical, such as for example:-

CC Cape Cod Massachusetts USA
FL Eiffel Tower Paris France
SF San Francisco California USA
GB Glace Bay Nova Scotia Canada

However, due to the number of wireless stations proliferating throughout the world, most of the abbreviations in use for the locations of wireless stations bore no resemblance to the actual location. For example:-
EX Los Angeles California USA
SN Cordova Alaska
UA Nantes France
DF Santa Barbara California USA
Another DF Vancouver British Columbia Canada

In an endeavor to regulate this confusing system of random choices, an international wireless convention was held in Berlin in 1906. This was the second international convention in Berlin that addressed the need for the regularization of the newly developing wireless scene that began with the work of the famous Italian, Guglielmo Marconi.

At this 1906 wireless convention, a system of alphabetic designations was allocated for all countries throughout the world. For example, transmitter callsigns beginning with:-
G were allocated to England
V British countries
F France & French colonies
I Italy
J Japan

There was a third international wireless convention held in London, England on April 23, 1913. Even though this event was staged mainly to address the wireless scene in Europe, yet delegates from the United States also attended and participated.

One of the important matters looked at on this occasion was the identification of amateur and experimental wireless stations which were beginning to proliferate in many countries. However, because the coverage area from these lower powered operations was considered to be quite local, it was decided to implement a different system of identification.
Their decision was to introduce a system of numbers and letters, with the initial number indicating the geographic location. Single numbers were chosen for each of the participating countries in Europe, as follows:-

Luxembourg 1
United Kingdom 2 5 & 6
Germany 4
Denmark 7
France 8
Holland 0

The major determining factor at the 1913 convention was that the initial digit number in a callsign indicated a specific geographic area. At this stage in Europe, the initial number indicated a specific country.

Likewise, when the American delegates returned home, the government authorities decided to implement a similar system in the United States using the numbers 1 through 9, with each number indicating a specific cluster of states. North of the border, up there in Canada, they soon implemented a similar system, with the initial digit number indicating usually an individual province.

This same numeric scheme was also implemented in the South Pacific. Australia chose the numbers 2 through 9, indicating each separate state, as well as nearby Papua & New Guinea. New Zealand chose the numbers 1 through 4, indicating major geographic areas in the twin island country, beginning with 1 at the top of the North Island and ending with 4 at the bottom of the South Island.

When radio broadcasting was introduced into England, this same numeric system was implemented according to the action taken at the Third International Convention in London in 1913. Their first radio broadcasting station was 2MT Writtle, a Marconi experimental station launched out north east from London in February 1922; and next on the list came 2LO London, three months later.

However, in the list of the 22 introductory radio broadcasting stations in England from 1922 to 1925, there seems to be little apparent logic in the choice of the initial digit number, whether it was 2 or 5 or 6. Likewise, there was little apparent logic in the two letters of the alphabet that made up the remainder of the callsign.

Obvious callsigns in Great Britain during this era were 2BE Belfast in Northern Ireland; 5WA in Wales, at Cardiff; and 6ST in Stoke-on-Trent. However, in view of the fact that so many of the other callsigns in England during this early era seem to be almost a random selection, it would seem therefore that calls were chosen that were not already taken up by amateur radio operators.Even to this day, all amateur radio stations throughout the world are identified according to a mixture of letters and numbers. The initial alphabetic digits indicate the country, and the following numeric digits usually indicate regions within that country.

Likewise with the countries that have retained a similar system for the callsigns of radio broadcasting stations. In Australia, the initial number indicates the state, and the following two letters identify the station, and quite often, also the location. For example:-

2BH is located in Broken Hill New South Wales,
4TI Thursday Island Queensland
6XM Exmouth Western Australia
8AL Alice Springs Northern Territory

Next week here in Wavescan, we will take a further look at the interesting story regarding the usage of radio callsigns throughout the world; and on this next occasion, it will be the interesting story of shortwave callsigns.
(NWS41 via Adrian Peterson/AWR)