Find your ham roots by tracing the history of your call sign

Cover of the FALL 1937 Radio Amateur Call Book Magazine.

Martin Crabtree, W3PR | 2019 DVRA Director of Trainings & Examinations

These days, many hams choose to select their own call sign through the FCC’s vanity call sign program. In most cases, hams request call signs that are shorter than the 2 X 3 (call signs with two letters before the call area number and three letters after the number) they were first issued. Often these vanity call signs are in the 1 X 3 format or if they hold an Amateur Extra class license, in the coveted 1 X 2 (or 2 X 1) format.

Amateur call signs date back to before the time when the Federal Government first began issuing amateur radio licenses and call signs at the end of 1912. In the 100+ history of amateur radio licensing, first, the Department of Commerce and now the Federal Communication Commission have issued amateur call signs. It was not uncommon for a call sign to be reissued when it was no longer in use. Consequently, it is likely that one or more hams previously held the same call sign that you now hold. But who were the former holders of your call sign? Luckily, records are available that will allow you to trace the history of your call sign.

Call sign directories, commonly known as callbooks, were regularly published by both the Federal Government and commercial enterprises since before licensing began in 1912. Callbooks continued to be published into the 1990s. Luckily, many of these callbooks have been digitized and are available from the Internet Archive at

Looking through these phonebook-like callbooks, you can find when your call sign first appeared as well as the name and address of the holder of the call sign at that time. Moving through these (mostly) annual callbooks, you may follow your call sign up to 1997 when printed callbooks ceased publication.

If you choose to search through the callbook archive note that:

  • You may select the year(s) of the callbooks displayed to the left of the opening screen. Click on “More” at the bottom of the year list for a full list of callbook years available.
  • Because amateur radio was shut down during both World Wars, no callbooks were published in 1917-1918, nor 1942-1945.
  • Callbooks published after the early 1930s are broken into separate files for each of the 9 and after World War II, the 10 call areas.
  • Using the search box in the upper right will allow you to search the portion of the callbook displayed by call sign, name, location, etc.
  • When searching the callbooks, you are relying on optical character recognition (OCR), a computerized method of searching text. Errors in OCR will occasionally happen. For example, the letter O might be recognized as the number Ø, or the letters VV recognized as the letter W. Sometimes searching for a name or address can help.
  • From the early 1930s to 1960, international call signs were also included in the callbooks. A separate foreign callbook began publishing in 1960. The Internet Archive’s callbook collection includes some but not all of these later foreign callbooks.

Call sign records after 1997 are available through the FCC’s Uniform Licensing System (ULS) license archive. You may search the ULS archive at

Check the “Exact Matches Only” box at the top of the search screen when looking for a specific call sign to focus your search results.

It can be interesting to find out who once held the same call sign as you now have. I have traced my own calls sign W3PR.  By using traditional genealogical tools along with the callbook information, I have compiled this list of the former holders of W3PR (or 3PR prior to 1927) and their occupations:

  1. Clarence LeRoy Hahn (machinist): 1913-1914
  2. E. Frank Ramsay (warehouse clerk): 1915
  3. Russell Hamburg (bookkeeper): 1916
  4. James M. Bott (student): 1920-1921
  5. Wilmer L. Fox (messenger, Dept. of Commerce): 1923-1926
  6. Merrill D. Beam (radio engineer): 1927-1931
  7. Charles F. Horne, Jr. (Naval Academy instructor): 1933-1935
  8. C. F. Horne (U.S. Navy, Norfolk, Va.): 1938-1941
  9. James M. Bott (owner, Bott’s Radio & Music Shop): 1947-1975
  10. Giles M. Crabtree (electrical engineer): 1977-2014
  11. Martin J. Crabtree (librarian): 2015-present

Added information about obtaining your own vanity call sign is available here:

You can read and see more photos from the author, Martin Crabtree W3PR, at

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