The current series of Australian Amateur Radio Call Signs may seem a little baffling but looking back at the way in which our call signs have evolved shows that it has been much more confusing in the past.

We know that there were wireless experimenters in most states of Australia from about 1897, very soon after Marconi's demonstrations in London. Engineers from the Post & Telegraph Dept., University researchers and a few individuals duplicated Marconi's wireless system in the period 1900-1904, with varying degrees of success. There were no call signs at that time, and operators simply used their station location or their names or initials as identifiers. Experimenters were supposed to obtain permission from the Royal Navy on Australian Station, ie before the formation of the Australian Navy, but most didn't bother and the Navy had no wireless to hear them anyway, although occasionally visiting Navy ships were equipped with wireless equipment.

By 1904 the Australian Navy (actually the Royal Navy on Australian Station) did have several ships equipped with wireless and used the ship's names or initials as identification. For example the RNS "St. George" was just "SG". The Navy was keen to restrict wireless to military purposes only but wireless manufacturers saw Australia as a lucrative commercial market and demanded access. The Australian Government therefore enacted The Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1905 (October 1905) to place control of wireless under the PMG's Department. The W.T. Act did provide for private experimenters but because of the high fees (3) and severe penalties (500 fine or 5 years imprisonment for offences) very few licences were issued.

A Mr. H.G. Robinson obtained what was probably the first experimental licence issued, in November 1905 for "experiments in halls for lecture purposes", while the Marconi Co. (NZ) obtained a licence in 1906 for trials of communication between Victoria and Tasmania. Also in 1906 E.F.G. Jolley of Maryborough, Victoria, had stations in two houses about a mile apart. These licences all expired after 1 year. By 1908 the only experimental licence current in Australia was held by the engineer for the Victorian PMG, H.W. Jenvey, who built two stations early in 1908, one at St. Kilda and another 65 miles away at Queenscliff, Melbourne. In 1909 there were only two licences on issue, held by H. Sutton at 290-292 Bourke St. Melbourne, with apparatus capable of a 250 mile range, and C.P. Bartholomew at Mosman, NSW, with a range of 1/2 mile. In 1910 the Australasian Wireless Company was licensed with the call sign ATY, and then it obtained AAA when a new station was erected in the Hotel Australia in 1911, with 2 masts on the roof.

The PMG Dept. discouraged experimenters but after representations by the newly formed Wireless Institute of Australia in April 1910 it adopted a more liberal attitude to licensing so that by August 1911 there was a total of 27 authorised "experimental" stations, 22 in Sydney, 3 in Melbourne, 1 in S.A. and 1 on King Island off Tasmania.

Beginning mid-1910 the PMG Dept. issued the experimental stations with 2 letter call signs prefixed by "X" for experimental, with no distinction between states, or between private and commercial operators. For instance XAA was J.Y. Nelson (the Senior Electrical Engineer of the Sydney PMG Dept. and also the local radio inspector), F. Leverrier, a leading Sydney experimenter, was XEN, N.S. Gilmour, of St. Kilda, was XNG, Father A. Shaw of the Maritime Wireless Co. had XPO and so on. By the way, the experimental licence consisted of 6 foolscap pages of regulations and restrictions and sketches of the equipment. None of the equipment could be altered without approval of the local PMG authority, who could make inspections at any time.

Experimental Licences current in August 1911. (I do not have a list of all the call signs)
1   XBM C.P. Bartholomew Mosman, Sydney


  H. Sutton Malvern, Melbourne
3 XJQ W.T. Appleton Malvern, Melbourne
4a XJP J.H.A. Pike Arncliffe, Sydney
4b   A.V. Robb Arncliffe, Sydney


XEN F. Leverrier Waverley, Sydney
6   W.H. Hannam Darling Point, Sydney
7 XPO Rev. A. Shaw Randwick, Sydney


  G.C. Hamilton Woollahra, Sydney
9   Royal Yacht Squadron Sydney
10 XDM Maclurcan & Lane Hotel Wentworth, Sydney
11   E. Reeve Rozelle, Sydney
12   A. Mcardle Kilkenny and Enfield, S.A.
13 XAA J.Y. Nelson PMG Dept. McMahons Pt., Sydney
14   H. Leverrier Gordon, Sydney
15 XCP M.C. Perry Randwick, Sydney
16 XAB A.S. Arnold Ashfield, Sydney
17   A.H. King Marrickville, Sydney
18   F.H. Day C. of E. Grammar School, Sydney
19   J.S. Nolan Waverley, Sydney
20 XCA R.C. Alsop Randwick, Sydney
21   H.A. Stowe Drummoyne, Sydney
22   A. Goodwin Hamilton, Melbourne
23   C.N. Allen Chatswood, Sydney
24   H.J.B. Foley Randwick, Sydney
25 XPO Rev. A. Shaw King Island, Tasmania
(Maritime Wireless Co. of Australia)
26 AAA Australasian Wireless Ltd. Hotel Australia, Sydney - previously
27 ATY Australasian Wireless Ltd. Underwood St., Sydney

There are indications that a number of experimenters of the time did not apply for licences, either through ignorance of the requirements or deliberately, hoping not to be caught.

When the government wireless stations at Sydney and Applecross (W.A.) commenced operations in 1912 they were allocated POS, for Post Office Sydney, and POP for Perth, but following an international wireless convention which allocated prefixes on a world wide basis the PO was changed to a VI, hence VIS and VIP. The government established 22 coastal stations all with VI prefixes.

In August 1912, as more and more people showed interest in experimental operation and applied for licences, the PMG Dept. decided it should identify each state by changing the call sign sequence as follows:


This meant that several call signs had to be altered to comply with the new series. For example in NSW, J.H. Pike who had been XJP received a new call of XDY, and C.S. Crouch XRT, became XCC. This change explains the discrepancy in early lists which show different call signs for the same person.

When the initial series was filled an extra letter was added. In NSW, for instance, the block of  XAA to XIZ allowed for 234 licences, and when they were used up the series was continued as XAAA - XIZZ. At the time an experimental licence cost 1/1/-. The Wireless Institute of Victoria printed a call book in about June 1914 listing every known amateur and commercial (shipping) station, with information from PMG records.

The XAAA type call identification became a little cumbersome so in July/August 1914 the calls were altered to X with a number to identify the state, then 2 letters, eg the PMG Radio Inspector's call in NSW became X2AA. Not many licensees had the chance to use the new calls before World War 1 was declared and all wireless experiments ceased in August 1914. However, several people and organisations did obtain special permission to continue operations, such as the Perth Wireless Club, as a listening post only, for suspected spies in W.A. and Ernest Fisk, Manager of AWA, who could both transmit and receive. The Government wireless stations continued in operation but in November 1916 the Navy again took control of all wireless, including the commercial and government stations.

After WW1 the Navy still controlled the airwaves and was reluctant to allow wireless experiments but following extended negotiations between the WIA and the Navy, Radio Commander Creswell agreed in June 1919 to issue Temporary Permits to experiment in Wireless telegraphy. These were for receiving only but permits to transmit and receive were issued to the WIA, a couple of Universities and one or two prominent experimenters. There were added restrictions to be observed if the licensee wished to use a valve (usually in a regenerative circuit which could perhaps cause interference to Navy wireless). At this time the Naval Director of Radio Services instigated a new call sign system consisting simply of the sequential licence number, prefixed by the state initial. For instance R.H. Davies of Melbourne obtained licence number 237 so his call sign was V.237 whilst the next applicant, A.B. Cummings in Queensland was call sign Q.238. By February 1920 more than 600 permits had been issued. In April 1920 the Government took charge and re-introduced regulations allowing experimental and instructional licences. An experimental licence cost 2/-/-.

In September 1920, the Government amended the Wireless Telegraphy regulations to remove all wartime restrictions and placed the control of wireless under the "Director of Radio Telegraphy, Prime Minister's Department, Melbourne". The Prime Minister was in discussion with AWA over a UK/Australia communications link and wanted to keep close control of wireless, and the PMG was reluctant to take back responsibility for commercial wireless anyway because it was a money losing situation. When the new Director took over from the Navy in early 1921 he changed back to the pre-war call system of X2AA etc. Some "transmitters", as they were called, requested specific call signs, so for example one leading transmitter, Charles D. Maclurcan, obtained X2CM.

Other less prominent experimenters who wished to transmit were discouraged till 3rd November 1922, when further new regulations were released, allowing experimental wireless in 2 categories:-

                             a) transmit and receive and b) receive only.

 The receive only licence was further split into:

                             i) crystal receiver and ii) valve receiver.

The cost of a licence became 1/-/- for the full licence and 10/- for the receive only licence.

If a licensee had a valve receiver he had to be able to read morse code at 12 WPM, the reasoning being that if the valve broke into oscillation (as was likely with the unstable circuits or regeneration commonly used) and was interfering with one of the navy or commercial stations, which were still using morse, they could come back and tell the offender(s) to close down.

The PMG's Dept. reluctantly took over the control and licensing functions from the Prime Minister's Dept. at this time, and the call signs were altered yet again, to XA2AA, XA3AA etc where "X" was for experimental and the "A" identified Australia on an international prefix system.

Note that licences and call signs were issued for receiving purposes too, and in fact very few licenced experimenters actually had transmitting equipment. Up to this time there were only about 60 genuine amateur transmitters in all Australia. The other approx. 650 licensees were in fact "listeners" ie. they had receivers only and most had little technical interest or expertise, BUT they did have valid call signs.

The Experimental Licence that was issued during this period was endorsed with either:

T -- to signify approval to Transmit and Receive

R -- to indicate Receive only and then   C -- crystal or V -- valve

The regulations also provided for a Broadcast Licence which allowed an experimenter to transmit news and entertainment, but no advertising or payment was permitted. Other restrictions were the same as for the experimental Transmit Licence. As it cost 5, few experimenters took up this licence but a few did set up broadcast facilities and some went on to become prominent broadcasters.

Although the regulations did not come into effect officially till 1-12-1922, experimental licences were issued from October 1922 with both transmitters and listeners receiving call signs. By mid-1923 around 700 call signs had been issued and NSW had used up all its 2 letter allocation and was about to issue 3 letter calls. However, in May 1923 the PMG decided to hold all further applications pending the release of new regulations which would include commercial broadcasting. There was growing public and industry agitation for broadcasting, so a conference of all interested parties was held in May 1923 to organise and regulate public broadcast operations.

The 1923 Broadcasting Conference included representatives from all groups interested in wireless, who framed regulations to introduce and control public broadcasting. The conference was dominated by Mr. E.T. Fisk of AWA, who pushed through his proposal for the infamous "Sealed Set" system, whereby listeners could use a receiver tuned and sealed to receive one station only for a fee of up 4/4/- per year, with additional costs if one wanted to listen to another station. Experimenters lost some privileges to commercial interests and were misled by certain delegates. The new regulations were delayed so the PMG started to issue experimental licences once again, but this time only genuine transmitters received a call sign too.

When the new broadcast regulations finally became effective in August 1923 a new class of licence was issued, a "Broadcast Listener's Licence", costing 10/-.However, it was obvious that obtaining a receive only experimental licence for 20/-, with no restrictions on tuning, was cheaper than the broadcast listener's licence plus the station fee of 2/2/- to 4/4/-, and so somewhere around 1000 "listeners" applied for experimenter's licences. The broadcast stations soon complained that they were not receiving their expected fees so the PMG sent out letters to people who had receive only experimental licences, cancelling those licences and call signs and telling them to apply for a broadcast listener's licence. Many licences were in fact  cancelled, but someone objected in early 1924 and the government found that as the licence was validly issued, it could not be cancelled, even though the licensee was not in all fairness a wireless "experimenter".

To solve that problem, as each licence came up for renewal after 12 months, the licensee had to demonstrate that he was actually competent to experiment with wireless and was not just a "listener". Previously, any exam or morse test was at the discretion of the radio inspector and it appears very few previous applicants had to prove they knew anything about wireless. With the new approach, the number of experimental licences in the period 1924-1925 dropped significantly from the 1923 level and many names and call signs vanished. It was estimated in early 1925 that there were about 1200 experimental licensees in Australia, of which less than 90 were transmitters and the rest, even though they held call signs, should have been reclassified as Broadcast Listeners. Deleting all these listeners from the call sign lists left many gaps in the sequence up till the mid-'40s when growth in numbers finally made the 3 letter call sequence necessary.

This practice of issuing call signs to listeners with no real technical expertise raises a problem concerning claims by some old timers' to precedence in amateur activities. For instance Miss F. Violet Wallace (later Mrs. McKenzie), is regarded as the first Australian female amateur, but the records show that there were four ladies, all listeners only but with valid call signs, before Miss Wallace obtained her licence.

During the 1922-25 period experimenters were blamed for interference with other stations, and the Wireless Institute was keen to make a distinction between true "experimenters" who were engaged in research and wireless construction, and those who they called "amateurs", who were only listeners, using store bought or simple kit-built crystal or 1 valve sets. The amateurs were to blame for interference with broadcasts, but of course experimenters were more proficient!

The Fisk "sealed set" scheme mentioned above was a failure and less than 12 months later another Broadcast Conference convened and new regulations closer to the present broadcast rules were issued by the PMG in July 1924. At this second conference the experimenters came under further pressure and lost more band space and privileges. One recommendation of the conference was to revoke all experimental licences and instead issue no more than 980 "Expert Experimental Licences" (Australia wide) to genuine experimenters, to be approved by the WIA. The allocation per state was to be:

300 300 100 100 150 30

Fortunately the PMG rejected this proposal, and when it issued new Statutory Regulations in July 1924 it clarified the Experimental Licence and Broadcast Listeners Licence and at this time introduced formal examinations for the Amateur Operators Certificate of Proficiency (AOCP). The morse requirement was 12 WPM and the exam cost 5/- whilst issue of a certificate cost another 2/6.

A further change in the call sign identifier occurred in 1927 when another international radio conference decreed that Australia should use the prefix OA effective from 1-2-1927, so we then had calls such as OA3BM, Howard Kingsley Love. "O" was for Oceania and "A" for Australia.

Only a couple of years later yet another international agreement saw the calls changed to the current VK plus a number prefix, for instance VK2JP (J.H. Pike again). That change came into force at midnight of 31-12-1928, but the PMG Chief Radio Inspector, Mr. Jim Malone, decided that VK call signs would be used from 8-12-1928 so that the change would be fully implemented by 1-1-1929, which explains why some contacts and QSL cards seem to have jumped the gun by quoting "VK" calls prior to January 1929.

There does not seem to be any official declaration of the call sign format so many experimenters used their own interpretation by adding a hyphen or a full stop to their call signs as printed on QSL cards, such as XA-4CD, OA2-BH, VK.2AK and VK-4SU. There was even VK3D.L. and VK3--H--W. Some, perhaps speculating on further changes, abbreviated their QSL cards to show just the number and letters, such as 4WK and 5BJ. Magazines of the era often left the prefix off the calls when reporting experimenters' activities anyway.

Finally, the PMG recognised a changing understanding of the terminology and "Experimental Station Licensees" officially became "Amateur Station Licensees" from 19-9-1947.

After all that, I think I'll let some future historian work out the significance of the more recent variations in VK0, VK9, Z, C, K, M and N calls.

Australian Archives.
Mitchell Library.
Amateur Radio magazine.
Documents and call sign listings in collection of C. MacKinnon.

Please note, this article is copyrighted.