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With the discovery of radio, people had very little idea of what it could be used for, let alone any regulatory position. As a result use of the radio spectrum was totally unregulated. No licenses were needed and anybody could take to the airwaves.
This state of affairs could not last for long otherwise anarchy would reign. Governments started to realise this and legislation was introduced and licenses started to be issued.
This decisions made in period in the history of amateur radio are still felt today as callsigns and licenses are required for amateur radio stations.
Before amateur radio license
In the early days of wireless communications, few had any concept of how the technology would develop.
Professionals and amateur experimenters alike were free to use the new medium of wireless as they wanted. No licenses were required.
Initially governments had little concept of what wireless or radio was capable of, or what controls were needed. However this soon started to change.
UK wireless legislation
In the UK the road towards legislation and licenses for both amateur radio enthusiasts and professional alike started in 1903. The International Telegraph Conference held in London between 26 May and 10 July 1903. Also a later International Conference on Wireless Telegraphy took place in Berlin in August of that year. It is highly likely that discussions at these two events influenced the British Government with the result that they sought to introduce legislation.
It did not take long before the Government acted because the Wireless telegraphy Act 1904 became law on 15th August 1904. It remain in force until 31st July 1906 after which it was extended on an annual basis until it was replaced by the Wireless telegraphy Act of 1924.
This act was probably the first legislation globally seeking to control wireless telegraphy.
The reasoning for the legislation came out of the report of the Post Master General (under whose remit wireless telegraphy came) when he stated: "the strategic importance of Wireless Telegraphy and the fact that some form of centralised control is needed if we are to receive the fullest advantage from this new form of communication."
UK amateur radio licences
A direct consequence of the new UK legislation was that licenses needed to be issued. The first licenses were issued in 1905 and were entitled "Licence to use Wireless Telegraphy Equipment for Experimental Purposes."
A list of those who had been issued with these experimental licenses was compiled in June 1906 and includes the details of sixty eight people. The list included the name of the applicant, the proposed location of the installation, what was termed the 'Radius of Action', and the license status, i.e. granted, under consideration, etc.
One of the most famous with a license on the list was Ambrose Fleming the inventor of the diode valve and consultant to Marconi. It is also possible to see that stations were being set up in many parts of the country.
Interestingly, at this stage, the act does not seem to differentiate between professional and amateur radio licenses, although a note did appear under the entry for the De Forest Wireless Telegraph Syndicate entry as a commercial entry.
Also the requirement for using the license for experimental purposes has been established in the UK - an aspect that remained until licenses were revoked for the Second World War - nearly 40 years later.
USA amateur radio licenses
The first amateur radio licenses were a little later in coming in the USA.
Initially there was little interference between stations because the distances they could reach were only a few miles at most. As the technology improved, distances increased along with the number of radio amateurs.
With the increase in the levels of interference, the US Congress started considering the possibility of legislation in 1910. After 2 years the Radio Act of 1912 became law and it placed a number of severe restrictions on radio amateurs in addition for the need for all amateur radio stations to be licensed.
The major obstacle was that all radio amateurs were to operate on a wavelength of 200 metres or shorter. At this time long distance communications used very long wavelengths, and the shorter wavelengths were thought to be of little value - these wavelengths could be used by amateur experimenters.
At the time, it was thought this restriction could bring about the end of amateur radio, but after an initial drop in numbers, the figure quickly started to rise.