U.S. Special Land Stations: Overview

Thomas H. White -- October 7, 2000

This page provides background information for the station list at U.S. Special Land Stations: 1913-1921 Recap.


Effective December 13, 1912, U.S. radio stations were generally required to have government-issued licences in order to operate, under the provisions of the August 13, 1912 Act to Regulate Radio Communication. Regulations covering radio station licencing and operation were developed by the Commerce Department, and, as noted in the Classes of Land Stations section, from the July 1, 1913 edition of Regulations Governing Radio Communication, the decision was made to divide land stations into seven separate licence categories:
  1. Public-service stations, (a) general, (b) limited.
  2. Limited commercial stations.
  3. Experiment stations for the development of radio communication.
  4. Technical and training school stations.
  5. General amateur stations.
  6. Special amateur stations.
  7. Restricted amateur stations.
The first two licence classes covered commercial operations -- Public Service stations handled commercial telegraph services for the general public, while Limited Commercial licences were issued to stations operated by commercial firms for private purposes, for example internal company communications links. At the other end of the commercial spectrum, the General Amateur and Restricted Amateur classes were for personal stations operated by amateurs and hobbyists, and limited to operating on 200 meters (1500 kilohertz).


The final three licence classes -- Experimental, Technical and Training School, and Special Amateur -- were collectively known as Special Land stations. These stations were responsible for some of the most important and innovative early radio developments, including the beginnings of broadcasting services.

Special Land stations were generally assigned to operate on uncluttered wavelengths between 600 and 200 meters (500 to 1500 kilohertz). The standards for issuing Experimental licence authorizations appeared in the Experimental Stations clause, from Section 4 of the 1912 Act to Regulate Radio Communication:
The Secretary of Commerce and Labor may grant special temporary licenses to stations actually engaged in conducting experiments for the development of the science of radio communication, or the apparatus pertaining thereto, to carry on special tests, using any amount of power or any wave lengths, at such hours and under such conditions as will insure the least interference with the sending or receipt of commercial or Government radiograms, of distress signals and radiograms, or with the work of other stations.
while the requirements for Special Amateur grants were included, as an exception to the standard licencing of amateur stations, in the 15th Regulation of Section 4:
No private or commercial station not engaged in the transaction of bona fide commercial business by radio communication or in experimentation in connection with the development and manufacture of radio apparatus for commercial purposes shall use a transmitting wave length exceeding two hundred meters, or a transformer input exceeding one kilowatt, except by special authority of the Secretary of Commerce and Labor contained in the license of that station...
(There doesn't appear to be any specific mention of Technical and Training Schools station licences in the 1912 Act. Although the Special Amateur and Technical and Training School licence categories were eventually dropped during the 1920s, Experimental licences have continued to been issued up to the present day.)


An interesting feature of the early Special Land stations is that, in common with the regular amateur stations, they were not reported to the International List of Radiotelegraph Stations at Berne, Switzerland, thus they were not issued "international" callsigns -- i.e. ones starting with KD-KZ, N and W, the international prefixes assigned to the U.S. during this time. Instead, Special Land (along with amateur) stations were assigned calls that started with a digit designating the Radio Inspection District in which they were located, followed by two or three letters.

Special Land stations were sometimes called the "XYZ" stations, because Experimental licences received callsigns with an "X" as the first letter after the district number, while Technical and Training School licences got "Y" callsigns, and Special Amateur stations received "Z". Thus, you can tell by their callsigns that 9XE was a 9th district Experimental station (William H. Kirwan, Davenport, Iowa), 8YO an 8th district Technical and Training School station (Ohio State University in Columbus), while 1ZE was a 1st district Special Amateur station (Irving Vermilya, in Marion, Massachusetts). Like Commercial and Ship stations, Special Land station licences were issued by the Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C., and station information was reported in the department's monthly Radio Service Bulletin. (In contrast, regular amateur station licences were issued by the regional radio inspectors, and information about regular amateur stations was only reported once a year, in the annual station lists issued by the department).

At least at the beginning of licencing, in most cases the second letter of the callsign appears to have been chosen to match the name of the station owner. Thus, from the initial station list that appeared in the July 1, 1913 issue of Radio Stations of the United States, 4XG was assigned to the Georgia School of Technology, 9XB went to Beloit College, 6XR went to Frank Rieber, 1XP was assigned to George W. Pierce, 3ZS went to Chas. H. Stewart, and so forth.


Experimental licences were issued to a wide variety of commercial firms, educational institutions, and private individuals. Technical and Training School licences were most commonly assigned to college and university stations, but also included were high schools plus commercial schools that trained radio technicians and operators. Special Amateur stations were most commonly used for "relay" work, providing links between other amateur stations. The longer wavelengths assigned to the Special Amateurs meant that they generally had much better coverage than the regular amateurs, who had to operate on the congested 200 meter wavelength.

One of the most important innovations developed by a few of the Special Land stations was the broadcasting of news and entertainment to the general public -- at this time the Department of Commerce had no regulations specific to broadcasting activities. While the earliest efforts used the dot-and-dashes of telegraphic code, experimentation expanded with the development of audio transmissions, especially once vacuum tube transmitters were perfected. Stations in all three of the Special Land station licence categories were represented in the ranks of stations pioneering broadcasting operations, although Experimental licences predominated, for example, from the pre-war period, 6XF operated by Charles D. Herrold in San Jose, California, Lee DeForest's "Highbridge" station, 2XG, in New York City, licenced to the Radio Telephone & Telegraph Company, and 1XE, operated by Harold Power's American Radio & Research Corp. in Medford, Massachusetts.

Effective April 7, 1917, with the entrance of the United States into World War One, all radio transmitters were either closed down or taken over by the U.S. government. A handful of the pre-war Special Land stations -- mainly ones operated by colleges and universities -- continued to operate during the war, although now under government control and callsigns. Because all radio station licences expired during the war, when private radio began to be restarted after the war, all the stations had to get new licences if they wanted to return to the air. Most of the returning stations were assigned the same callsign they had used before the war.

The months after World War One saw an acceleration of broadcasting development and experimentation, with Special Land stations in all three classes at the forefront -- the Commerce Department still had no formal regulations designating what was a broadcasting station. One significant change, however, was that, beginning with Westinghouse's KDKA in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in November, 1920, a small number of stations operating under Limited Commercial licences also began setting up broadcasting activities.

Finally, effective December 1, 1921, the Commerce Department promulgated regulations formally establishing a broadcast service. Importantly, the new broadcast service was set up as part of the Limited Commercial licence classification, which meant that all the stations which had been making broadcasts to the public within the Special Land group of licences, or under gerneral amateur authorizations, now had to get a Limited Commercial licence if they wanted to continue. At this point, some stations ended their broadcasting activities, while others made the upgrades needed to qualify for the broadcasting authorizations. It took a few months for all of the stations to make the switch--in many cases this just amounted to a station getting a second licence for its transmitter, thus, for example, using one callsign and wavelength when operating under its experimental authorization, then, when broadcasting to the public, switching to the callsign and wavelength specified by the Limited Commercial broadcast authorization. (For a review of the first broadcast service licences, which included many stations making the transition from other licence categories, see United States Pioneer Broadcast Service Stations.)


I put together a list, U.S. Special Land Stations: 1913-1921 Recap, consisting of information about the first 8½ years of Special Land stations that I found in official government reports. However, because of the limited information available about these stations, there may have been a number of additional stations which were omitted from the standard lists. (For example, because of the abrupt suspension of the publication of the Radio Service Bulletin after the March 1, 1917 issue, any actions which took place in March through the first week of April, 1917 would not have been reported).

Also, temporary station authorizations were not normally reported by the Commerce Department. However, there is information from other sources about at least two temporary Special Amateur station grants. For the first few days of operation, beginning November 2, 1920, Westinghouse's station in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania reportedly broadcast under a temporary authorization using the Special Amateur call of 8ZZ, before switching to operating under a Limited Commercial licence, as KDKA. Also, in History of "WRW", Mark Roberts found evidence that in February, 1922 the Kansas City Post received a temporary Special Amateur grant, 9ZH, in order to make a special broadcast.

In addition, there are numerous post-war reports of a Army Signal Corps station at the Presidio in San Francisco, California, operating with the Experimental callsign of 6XW -- see John F. Schneider's Early Broadcasting in the San Francisco Bay Area. However, there are no references to this 6XW in the official station lists, which may be because this was a government operated station, not subject to licencing.