Signal Letters / Call Signs - Ships Nostalgia
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Signal Letters / Call Signs

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  #1  
Old 13th January 2008, 20:10
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Signal Letters / Call Signs

As I read through the old Shipping Registers, I note the Signal Letters
recorded for the ships to identify them. There are even diagrams of
those four flags to assist the harbourmaster. This presumably is the
same system as has been carried over into the radio age and digital
age. I note that the signal consists of four letters, giving a combination
which allows 456,976 permutations; now modern signals include the
10 digits (thanks to the Arabic Culture for those) which now allows
for 1,679,676 permutations.
How does all of this figure in the world of varying "alphabetical" characters
from differing countries where English is not a first language?
Is that maximum permutation at any point likely to be "not enough"?
How does any nation get appointed a series of Call Signs, or know for
a fact that there are no duplications?
Does every ship have to have a Call Sign, what are the parameters that
determine whether or not a Call Sign should be allocated?
Are there any references about the history of the Signal Letter/Call Sign?
Best Wishes, Raymond
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  #2  
Old 13th January 2008, 20:40
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Raymond,

you are thinking too deeply for a Sunday!. A very wide question with regard to how and when this all started. All countries are allocated callsigns by the IMO conventions and have been for many years. These have changed as time passes and other countries have gained Independence or merchant fleets of their own. Each vessel is issued a callsign when it has a radio station installed. Whether this be RT or more advanced systems, dependant on the trading pattern of the vessel i.e home trade, deep sea etc. There is an international book of callsigns (as I sure you are aware). There is a web site which I have which is www.arrl.org/awards/dxcc/itucalls.html which lists all countries and their respective allocated callsigns.
This is a short answer to a big question. No doubt others will have their say.

Regards
Hawkey01

Last edited by hawkey01 : 13th January 2008 at 20:43.
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  #3  
Old 13th January 2008, 20:58
K urgess K urgess is offline
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The call sign system changed in the 1920s when 4 letter codes were issued for ships. 3 letters for coast stations and 5 letters for aircraft.
Britain got the G & M series whereas the US got K & W among others.
Previous to this callsigns were 3 letters for ships and could be any 3 irrespective of country.
Attached is a page from the Year-Book of Wireless Telegraphy & Telephony - 1913, showing some ship's callsigns.
Wikipedia has an article here.
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File Type: jpg Callsigns - 001s.jpg (273.4 KB, 111 views)
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  #4  
Old 13th January 2008, 21:10
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Thanks for that Hawkeye and Kris, so the whole system has been set up
independently from the Signal Letters system... Now based on a transmitting basis.
The Shipping registers give a combination of four letters (flags) long before the
radio became more than a bright spark of imagination.
I just got fascinated with the idea of permutations and availablity.
Someone told me that there had been a million ships built since records
began, and the maths did not seem to work out.
Best Wishes, Raymond
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  #5  
Old 13th January 2008, 21:24
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Quote:
Originally Posted by hawkey01 View Post
All countries are allocated callsigns by the IMO conventions and have been for many years.
Hawkeye,

Not the IMO (International Maritime Organisation) which did not come into being until 1982, replacing IMCO (International Maritime Consultative Organisation) founded in 1948, but the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) established in 1865 and still operating today.

The ITU amongst many other things, allocates blocks of callsigns and other signalling identities to every country that operates radio stations. Each individual country then takes responsibility for assigning callsigns/identities to the radio stations operating under its administration and for notifying the ITU of all such assignments.
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  #6  
Old 13th January 2008, 21:34
K urgess K urgess is offline
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Callsigns were, and probably still are, re-allocated, Raymond.
My first trip to sea on a Danish ship had the callsign OYMU, when I looked it up 10 years later it belonged to a totally different Danish ship the first one having been sold to another nation.

Kris
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  #7  
Old 13th January 2008, 21:34
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Here is a for example ...
The “John Banfield” oil painting by Henry Loos, Antwerp, 1872;
Signal Letters MQJB as in the original Registers.
The four flags on the mizzen mast read from top to bottom M, Q, J, B.
Built 1859. Moved to Hull 1881.
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File Type: jpg image002.jpg (21.1 KB, 35 views)
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  #8  
Old 11th February 2008, 23:04
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In all my 41 years at sea the only call sign I can recall is:-
dah dah dit/ dah dit dah dah/ dit dah dah/ dah dit dah.
I won't say the name of the ship, let some knowledgable sparks work it out!
NO PRIZES!!!
Dave437.
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  #9  
Old 11th February 2008, 23:14
sparkie2182 sparkie2182 is offline  
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perthshire
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  #10  
Old 12th February 2008, 01:25
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Sparkie2182,
SPOT ON!!!!
Dave437
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  #11  
Old 12th February 2008, 15:48
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Sad, but impressively good memory !

Does anybody dream in Morse ?

(even sadder !)
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  #12  
Old 12th February 2008, 16:29
Steve Woodward Steve Woodward is offline  
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My favourite was Golf Xray, Foxtrot, Uniform
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  #13  
Old 15th February 2008, 17:07
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A wee tune "best bent wire is best"
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  #14  
Old 15th February 2008, 22:31
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While doing conveys with the US Navy there seem to be a lot of Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot, Oscar flags going up along with voice on the VHF when the command of the convey would pass from one merchant ship to the next in line. Each ship would try to out do the previous ship in which type of turn to do.
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  #15  
Old 17th February 2008, 06:18
ernhelenbarrett ernhelenbarrett is offline  
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I believe new ships can be given the callsigns of vessels that have been sold or scrapped except when a vessel has suffered a total loss capacity , sunk or total loss through fire such as the Queen Elizabeth/GBSS which became a total loss in Hong Kong harbour as the QE2 did not take her callsign neither did the QM2 take the QM callsign of GBTT as this vessel is still afloat in the USA
regards Ern Barrett
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  #16  
Old 17th February 2008, 06:44
trotterdotpom trotterdotpom is offline  
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Ern there is another posting on this subject by a former QE2 R.O.

Queen Mary's callsign, GBTT, was transferred to Queen Elizabeth 2. Another post says that the new Queen Mary's callsign is GBQM.

John T.
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  #17  
Old 17th February 2008, 07:43
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As new countries gained their independence and other nationalities such as foc Liberia ran out of permutations, figures instead of letters appeared eg Liberia
5L and 5M. I would think the first country to have a merchant fleet and coast station commencing with a number was Israel 4X although Monaco had been allocated 3A. I remember in 1956 after "Merdeka" when Penang radio moved from VPX to 9MG though Singapore retained VPW until it broke away from Malayasia and became 9VG.
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  #18  
Old 17th February 2008, 10:12
BA204259 BA204259 is offline  
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Sad, you don't know what sad is! I left the sea in 1964 but to this day, in moments of extreme boredom such as sitting in Tesco's car park waiting for the boss, or long motorway journeys, I find myself whistling in morse all the car number plates I can see round me. I make different combinations of 3 and 4 letter callsigns from them. Now that is sad.
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  #19  
Old 17th February 2008, 10:46
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For ship call letters try this site

http://www.itu.int/cgi-bin/htsh/mars/ship_search.sh
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  #20  
Old 17th February 2008, 10:59
K urgess K urgess is offline
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Having that 40 years ago would have saved a few trees.
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  #21  
Old 17th February 2008, 11:26
trotterdotpom trotterdotpom is offline  
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Quote:
Originally Posted by BA204259 View Post
Sad, you don't know what sad is! I left the sea in 1964 but to this day, in moments of extreme boredom such as sitting in Tesco's car park waiting for the boss, or long motorway journeys, I find myself whistling in morse all the car number plates I can see round me. I make different combinations of 3 and 4 letter callsigns from them. Now that is sad.
Thanks BA - you are not alone! Living in Queensland, I have an extra obsession. Car registration numbers consist of 3 digits followed by 3 letters - I drive around spotting coast stations from the past! Shanghai (XSG) seems to be emerging as a recent winner. Could this be an omen in the Year of the Rat?

John T.
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  #22  
Old 17th February 2008, 11:53
BA204259 BA204259 is offline  
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Quote:
Originally Posted by King Ratt View Post
For ship call letters try this site

http://www.itu.int/cgi-bin/htsh/mars/ship_search.sh
Its a pity there isn't a similar site with all the old 4 letter call signs going back to the fifties and sixties, now that would give me some pleasure. I know an ex-colleague of mine has the Admiralty Book of Ships Call signs, the one we all had, but he won't part with it. I reckon he'll take it to his grave with him .
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  #23  
Old 19th February 2009, 23:27
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Request for further clarification

I have seen on several websites the terms "Call Sign" and "Signal Letters" used interchangeably. I don't believe this can be correct.

I have a copy of the International List of Ship Stations from 1929 and it lists Call Signs. Which I take to mean the identification used during radio communications.

I believe that Signal Letters were an earlier form of identification based on the use of four flags.

So I have some questions that I hope members can help me with:

1. I know that the P&O ship RMS Morea had both a call sign and signal letters and that these were different. I believe that both call signs and signal letters were superseded in 1947 by a new system and became obsolete, but would like to know whether they both got replaced at this time, or whether one went before the other.

2. Was there a point at which call signs and signal letters were made to be the same for a ship, or were they always different? I ask because a well-known website is quoting as signal letters, the same letters that I find recorded as the call sign for this ship the in International List of Ship Stations.

3. For periods when ships had both, under what circumstances would each be used
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  #24  
Old 20th February 2009, 10:07
K urgess K urgess is offline
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I don't think they were replaced in 1947, Brian. They may have been brought in line with the new allocations.
Pre the 1920s (can't remember the precise date) ship's callsigns were three letters and the allocation of letters was not really standardised. In the 1920s the starting letters were allocated almost as they are today and the letters increased to four to allow for the rapid increase in radio stations. Coast stations stayed at three and aircraft became five.
I think there was a further subdivision of call letter allocations in 1947 because of the increase in radio stations and participating countries again. By this I mean G & M for UK and N & W for the US, etc., as the starting letter.
At the same time they may have consolidated the old system and done away with the different signal flag calling letters.
When both were in force the radio call sign was always used for identification by radio and the signal letters used for visual identification.
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  #25  
Old 20th February 2009, 10:44
Richard Maskiell Richard Maskiell is offline  
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Going way back, I believe that signal letters were standardised in 1855 when the Official Number system was introduced. All British registered ships received both a 4 letter signal as well as an ON. Only 18 letters were used; the 5 vowels were omitted, as well as X Y and Z. Thus, the Official Number 1 (the Blessing, 54 tons of Goole) became HBCD, number 2 became HBCF and so on. By the time you get to ON 40000 the signal letters are up to SRNM.
In addition, Royal Navy vessels received 4 letters beginning with G.
Unlike with ON's, signal letters were subsequently recycled.
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