How to Find Old Amateur Radio Call Signs

Many times, persons doing research about their ancestors know that a relative was a ham radio operator, and they are interested in learning the call sign held by that person. Depending on the year when the person was licensed, this can sometimes be a very difficult process. However, in some cases, it is possible to find this information online, and this article gives you some pointers. In order to do the search, it is important to understand the system used to assign call signs. For a good background, see the excellent article from the May 1994 issue of QST.

For hams listed during the early days of radio (1913-1923), the process is quite easy, since government call books are available online and are easily searched. And for hams who had a license in place as of 1993 (which could have been issued as early as 1983), the search is also easy. But for the intervening decades, you will have to do some detective work. In some cases, it will not be possible to find this information online. But in some cases, it will, and this article gives you some pointers for searching. The information on this page applies specifically to the United States, but the same principles might apply to persons searching in other countries.

Pre-Licensing

Before the U.S. Government required licensing, amateurs often used self-assigned call signs. A 1909 listing from Modern Electrics magazine is available online.

Government Call Books: 1913 through 1931

In the early days of radio, the U.S. Department of Commerce, through the Government Printing Office, published annual lists of all U.S. radio stations.

The following government call book directories list all U.S. Stations, including amateur, commercial, and government. These are available at Google Books, and it's an easy matter to search by name using the "Search in this book" box at the left of the page. You can also download a PDF file. The following books are available at Google Books:

At some point, the Commerce Department began issuing separate call books for amateur stations. The 1920-23 editions are available online at this link. Even though this is a single volume at Google, this is actually four call books bound together, covering the years 1920-23. Each edition lists all U.S. Amateur stations, with listings both by call sign and name. Once again, it's an easy matter to search by name using the "Search in this book" box at the left of the page. You can also download a PDF file.

The 1922 listing is also available in a commercial publication, Citizens Radio Call Book, which includes both amateur and broadcast stations. Some, but not all, of the other issues of this magazine include amateur listings. So if you're looking for history of an amateur in the 1920's, this is a good resource.

Additional links to early government call books (mostly commercial) are available at this link.

The 1931 edition of the government call book can be searched on Google Books, but they are only available to read as a "snippet view". I'll explain some strategies for dealing with these "snippet view" books below. The 1931 edition can be found at this link. The 1928 Amateur call book is available at this link. This callbook was provided by W3FYF and scanned to archive.org by KB9MWR.

Brian, W9IND, also provided the following links to government call books available at hathitrust.org:

1920's through 1980's: Privately published call books

At some point, apparently in the 1930's, the U.S. Government stopped publishing call books. Instead, this task was taken up by private publishers. There might have been others at some point, but the main source of call sign information was the "Radio Amateur Call Book Magazine", which was published annually, with periodic updates. This was a phone-book-sized book listing every licensed amateur in the United States, along with the name and address. Early editions also included foreign countries, although these listings were not as comprehensive. At some point, the foreign listings were spun off into a separate volume.

If you're looking for a ham relative's old callsign, one or more of these books contains the information you are looking for. But the book is organized in alphabetical order by call sign. Therefore, the only way to look for a particular name is to laboriously go through the entire book (or actually, one tenth of the book showing the portion of the country where the ham lived) looking for that name. While difficult, this process is not impossible, and it has been done. If the tricks shown on this page do not work, then you might simply have to obtain a call book and start looking.

Used copies are sometimes available on Amazon at this link. They are also often available on eBay. The going prices at these sites seem to be about $20. Remember, there were annual editions, so be sure to order a copy from a year when you know the ham in question was licensed. There was always a delay in publishing the information, so be sure to order a copy at least a year or two after the year in which he was originally licensed.

There are also private collections of call books. In some cases, if these are located near you, you can go to the book, and take the hours necessary to read through the listings. In other cases, the owners might be willing to look something up for you. The owners will not, however, be willing to take hours and hours to search the listings for a name. But if, after following the steps on this page, you are able to narrow it down to a single page, or simply want them to verify a particular call sign, the owners might be willing to help you out. Here are some of the private collections of which I am aware:

Online Call Books

I'm aware of several call books online that can be searched:

1926

There is a 1926 call book available online that can be searched. The 1926 Amateur edition of Citizen's Radio Call Book is available online at americanradiohistory.com. This publication listed broadcast stations, but periodically issued lists of amateur stations, although this 1926 edition seems to be the only one online. You can search the full text from the link on the master page for that magazine.

Until recently, there was no way to do a full text search of more recent versions of these books. That is still largely the case, but it is now possible to do a full text search of the 1938, 1940, 1948, 1952, and 1972 editions. During that time, ham licenses were issued for five years. (Novice licenses were issued for either one or two years, depending upon the date.) Therefore, most longtime hams between the late 1930's and mid-1970's will be in one of these three books.

1938, 1940, 1948 and 1972

The most exciting development is that these editions have been scanned by KB9MWR, and are available at archive.org. You can search the full text of the books. They are broken down by call sign area, so if you don't know the number, you might need to do ten searches. But the OCR seems to have been done very well, so you can search by name and/or address. Keep in mind that names are usually printed as first name, middle initial, last name. So searching for the exact phrase in that order is probably the best bet. The books can be found at the following links:

Other years are also now available in all or part. To browse through the various editions that are available, you can use this link.

When deciding which year(s) you need to search, the following information sent to me by KB9MWR will be helpful:

When researching a call its good to know, how long they were issued for (from my research):

Before searching, it might be helpful to read the section below explaining how this publication is arranged. The scans above are broken down by call sign area (the number in the call sign). These numbers changed after the war, so if you're not familiar with how they are arranged, it might be helpful to simply search all ten sections in the 1948 or 1972 book, or all nine sections in the 1938 or 1940 book. You can go to the text page, and then use your browser's search function to look for the name.

1952

The 1952 "Radio Amateur Call Book Magazine" is slightly more difficult. It can be searched using Google Books, even though the full text is not available. The scans are imperfect, but if you have a name of someone you believe was licensed in 1952, it is usually possible to find the person's call sign. It's not convenient, and it doesn't always work. But in most cases, if the person was licensed in 1952, it will be possible to find their call sign if you know their full name and/or address.

Before searching, it is useful to know how the call book is organized. The call book consists of an alphabetical listing by call sign, followed by the person's name and address. Until recently, it has been very difficult to search by name, since the only way to do it was to search through hundreds of pages of tiny print, looking for the name in question. That's not an impossible task. And in some cases, it's the only method available. But since the 1952 call book is now searchable, to a limited extent, you might be able to do the search online.

You will need to do a text search for the person's name or address. Since the scanning process contains numerous errors, it is often best to attempt both methods. This will entail a certain amount of trial and error, but it is possible.

To see how this process works, let's look at the listing for a couple of famous hams of the era, Lew McCoy, W1ICP, and Wayne Green, W2NSD. Their listings read as follows:

W1ICP  Lewis G. McCoy, 38 LaSalle Road, West Hartford  Conn.

W2NSD Wayne S. Green, 1379 East 15th St., Brooklyn 30, N. Y. 

The names of licensees follow a very fixed format. They are almost always listed as first name, middle initial, last name. Therefore, if you do a search for that full name, in quotation marks, you are very likely to find the result. The best way I have found to do this search is as follows:

Go to the Google Books main page. (It's best to start at the main page, even though it's tempting to search inside the book once you are there. By starting on the main page, you will usually see your results in text format, without having to decipher a very hard to read image.) From that page, do a search for the following (including the quotation marks):


"radio amateur call book magazine" "wayne s green"

You get one search result, which is shown below:

As you can see, this search was immediately successful. Mr. Green's call sign is shown immediately before his name. You are done! You found his call, and you know it was W2NSD.

Unfortunately, this doesn't always work quite so easily. One thing that can go wrong is apparent from this search result. Take a look at the listing for W2NSG. It is listed as "U|.sala College Radio Club". This is obviously a scanning error, of which there are many. Obviously, this should be "Upsala" rather than "U|.sala". But a search for "Upsala College" would never find it. But we would be able to find it if we knew the address. We can still find it, but this example requires a bit more work. This time, we'll do the search for the following (including the quotation marks):


"radio amateur call book magazine" "318 prospect"  

Lo and behold, we get the following search result:

We obviously found the right listing, but we're not quite done. Remember, the call sign appears before the name and address. Before we click on the listing, make note of the next call, which is W2NSH. The call sign for which we are looking will preceed this one, and it's likely that it will be W2NSG, but it could be W2NSF, W2NSE, etc. When we click on this link, we will see a very low quality image of the "snippet", with the search text highlighted in yellow:

Unfortunately, most of the snippets will be about that difficult to read. In fact, it's practically impossible. But by saving the image to your computer and zooming in, you might be able to make it out. You might be able to make out the call sign right before it, or right after it. Or, you might need to simply guess that because it was before W2NSH, that it's probably W2NSG.

If the page is totally illegible, you still have a couple of other clues available. First of all, you now know that the listing is on page 55 of the 1952 call book. So if you get your hands on a 1952 call book, you can simply read that page. Or if you find someone else who owns a 1952 call book, you can probably persuade them to search page 55. It is very unlikely that you would be able to persuade them to search the entire book.

You can also look at the tops of the pages, where there is larger type. You can sometimes do this by doing a search for the page number: "radio amateur call book magazine" 55. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. If it does work, you will see the top of that page, which will show the first (for even number pages) or last (for odd number pages) call sign shown on that page. That call will be legible, and might narrow down your search.

By using whatever clues are available, make your best guess. Then, do a search for your guess. For example, assuming we guessed right, we would search for:


"radio amateur call book magazine" w2nsg

We will then see, in text form, confirmation that this call is correct. We will see that W2NSG belonged to "U|.sala College Radio Club", which we can safely conclude is the same as "Upsala".

Another thing that can go wrong is illustrated by our search for Lew McCoy. To do this search, it is best to know the ham's full name, in the form first name, middle initial, last name. We do our search for:


"radio amateur call book magazine" "lewis g mccoy"

This time, we encounter a different problem:

As you can see, we found the right name, but the call sign is not listed. This is because of another scanning error. The call signs appear in a separate column, as does the state. During the OCR process, these columns were placed separately, and not next to the correct listing. Therefore, in this search result, we have no choice but to rely on the snippet. When we click on the search result, we get the following:

This one is slightly easier to read. By saving this image to your computer, opening it with an image program, zooming in, and squinting, you can make it out. Unfortunately, there's no easy way to confirm this one. If you do a search for the call sign, you'll just get a list of all of the call signs in that column, not connected to the names or states. Again, in some cases, it might be necessary to go look at the physical book. But at least you know to look on the middle column of page 21, which makes your haystack a lot smaller.

You can also confirm many of your guesses by going to hamcall.net. That site has that data, searchable by callsign for 1921, 1954, 1960, 1969, 1983, and 1995-present. To search the old databases, you enter your search in the form callsign:year. For example, to confirm that it was W1ICP, we can do a search for W1ICP:1954 That confirms that our guess was right, as it lists the owner of the call as Lewis G. McCoy.

When searching the 1952 call book, you will need to use quite a bit of trial and error. Here are a few of the things I have noticed:

First, there is inconsistency about abbreviations. In some cases, "street" is spelled out, but in other cases, it may be abreviated as "st." You need to do an exact search. On the other hand, if the ham's name, street, or even town name are unique, then you can do a search for just that one word.

Some names are also abbreviated. Almost all of the entries use the format first name, middle initial, last name. But in some cases, the first name might be abbreviated. So if you are searching for "William", you might try doing a search for "Wm" as well.

Other places to search

QST is the journal of the American Radio Relay League. It is actually fairly likely that a given ham's call will appear in print at some point during his life. It's much less likely that his name will appear, although it is possible. For example, he might have written an article or letter to the editor. If so, you can search for his name at the index at http://www.arrl.org/arrl-periodicals-archive-search. For author name, enter the last name first, followed by a comma, followed by all or part of the first name. For example, a search for "mccoy, l" shows the hundreds of articles written by W1ICP over the years.


Books by Richard Clem:


Please visit my author page at amazon.com


The index is available to anyone. ARRL members also have online access to the full text of most QST articles. If you know when the ham in question died, you might be able to find his listing in the "silent key" (obituary) listings. This will show his name and call sign. These are published monthly, but the time it took for a death to be reported can vary greatly. But if the ham was an ARRL member at the time of his death, this might be the easiest method to find the call sign.

The online versions of QST are a treasure trove of information for hams, since they contain every single issue, going back to 1915. Unfortunately, it is not possible to search for the full text. Occasionally, though, it is possible to do a search from Google Books. Do a search for the desired text, perhaps along with a search term such as "QST" to narrow down the results. This often gives you a "snippet view" of a page from QST. Armed with clues from the snippet, it is often possible to find the article in the QST online archives. It's not a perfect solution, but sometimes it works.

Hams licensed after the 1980's

If you think the ham was licensed after about 1990, your search is much easier. You can search online at the following links. These databases can be searched by name.

To search the databases for 1993, 1997, 2002, and current data, you can use the following link: http://www.silentkeyhq.com/main.php4?p=research.php4&dbName=93. The following link allows you to search the 1993 database: http://qrz.com/search1993.html. As far as I know, the 1993 database is the oldest one that's readily searchable. (Keep in mind that at this time, licenses were good for 10 years. So in some cases, this will include data for hams who passed away as early as 1983.) For more discussion of the problem, see this page.

The recent appearance of the online callbooks makes the problem of searching for old call signs somewhat easier. Hopefully, other editions of the call book will start showing up.



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