WWV has a long and storied history that dates back to the very beginning of radio broadcasting. The call letters WWV were assigned to NIST (then called the National Bureau of Standards) in October 1919. Although the call letters WWV are now synonymous with the broadcasting of time signals, it is unknown why those particular call letters were chosen or assigned. Testing of the station began from Washington, D.C. in May 1920, with the broadcast of Friday evening music concerts that lasted from 8:30 to 11 p.m. The 50 W transmissions used a wavelength of 500 m (about 600 kHz, or near the low end of today's commercial AM broadcast band), and could be heard out to about 40 kilometers. A news release dated May 28, 1920 hinted at the significance of this event:
This means that music can be performed at any place, radiated into the air by means of an ordinary radio set, and received at any other place even though hundreds of miles away. The music received can be made as loud as desired by suitable operation of the receiving apparatus. Such concerts are sometimes sent out by the radio laboratory of the Bureau of Standards in connection with trials of experimental apparatus. This music can be heard by anyone in the states near the District of Columbia having a simple amateur receiving outfit. The pleasant evenings which have been experienced by persons at a number of such receiving stations suggest interesting possibilities of the future.
Interesting possibilities, indeed! Keep in mind that KDKA of Pittsburgh, generally acknowledged as the first commercial broadcast station, did not go on the air until November 2, 1920.
On December 15, 1920 the station began assisting the Department of Agriculture in the distribution of market news to farm bureaus and agricultural organizations. A 2 kW spark transmitter was used to broadcast 500 word reports, called the Daily Market Marketgram, on 750 kHz. The operating radius was about 300 kilometers out of Washington. These broadcasts continued until April 15, 1921.
By December 1922, it was decided that the station's purpose would be the transmission of standard frequency signals. The first tests were conducted on January 29th and 30th of 1923, and included the broadcast of frequencies from 200 to 545 kHz. By May of 1923, WWV was broadcasting frequencies from 75 to 2000 kHz on a weekly schedule. The accuracy of the transmitted frequency was quoted as being "better than three-tenths of one per cent." The output power of the station was 1 kW.
There were numerous changes in both the broadcast schedule, format, and frequency of WWV throughout the 1920's. In January 1931, the station was moved from Washington to the nearby city of College Park, Maryland. A 150 W transmitter operating at 5 MHz was initially used, but the power was increased back to 1 kW by the following year. A new device, the quartz oscillator, made it possible to dramatically improve the output frequency of WWV. Quartz oscillators were first used at WWV in 1927, and by 1932 allowed the transmitted frequency to be controlled to less than 2 parts in 107.
The station moved again in December 1932, this time to a 10 hectare (25 acre) Department of Agriculture site near Beltsville, Maryland. By April of 1933, the station was broadcasting 30 kW on 5 MHz, and 10 and 15 MHz broadcasts (20 kW output power) were added in 1935. The 5 MHz frequency was chosen for several reasons, including "its wide coverage, its relative freedom from previously assigned stations, and its convenient integral relation with most frequency standards." The 10 and 15 MHz frequencies were chosen as harmonics, or multiples of 5 MHz. WWV continues to use all of these frequencies today, as well as another harmonic (20 MHz), and a sub-harmonic (2.5 MHz).
The Beltsville area was the home of WWV until December 1966 (although the location name for the broadcast was changed to Greenbelt, Maryland in 1961). During the years in Beltsville, many interesting developments took place. A fire destroyed the station in November 1940, but the standard frequency equipment was salvaged and the station returned to the air just 5 days later using an adjacent building. An act of Congress in July 1941 provided $230,000 for the construction of a new station, which was built 5 kilometers south of the former site and went on the air in January 1943. The 2.5 MHz broadcasts began in February 1944, and are still used as a convenient way to reach the population nearest the radio station. Transmission on 20, 25, 30, and 35 MHz began in December 1946. The 30 and 35 MHz broadcasts were discontinued in January 1953 and the 25 MHz broadcast was stopped in 1977. With the exception of an almost 2-year interruption (1977-78), the 20 MHz broadcasts have continued to this day.
Much of the current broadcast format also took shape during the Beltsville years. The 440 Hz tone (A above middle C) was added to the broadcast in August 1936, at the request of several music organizations. The second pulses were added in June 1937, and the geophysical alert messages began in July 1957. And as quartz oscillator technology improved, so did the frequency control of the broadcast. The transmitted frequency was routinely kept within 2 parts in 1010 of the national standard by 1958.
WWV's most well known feature, the announcement of time, also began during the Beltsville years. A standard time announcement in telegraphic code was added in October 1945, and voice announcements of time began on January 1, 1950. The original voice announcements were at 5-minute intervals. It is interesting to note that WWV continued to broadcast local time at the transmitter site until 1967.
In 1966, the decision was made to move WWV to its current location, near Fort Collins, Colorado. The LF station WWVB went on the air in July 1963 near Fort Collins, and it was decided that WWV would share the same 158 hectare (390 acre) site. The new site was about 80 kilometers from the Boulder laboratories where the national standards of time and frequency were kept. The proximity to Boulder and the use of atomic oscillators at the transmitter site would make it possible to control the transmitted frequency to within 2 parts in 1011, a factor of ten improvement. Today, the station's frequency is controlled to within 1 part in 1013.
At 0000 UTC on December 1, 1966 the Greenbelt, Maryland broadcast was turned off and the new transmitter at Fort Collins was turned on. In April 1967 the station began broadcasting Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) instead of local time, and began its current format of using Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) in December 1968. The time announcements were made every minute, instead of every 5 minutes, beginning in July 1971.
Many new features and programming changes have been added to the WWV broadcast over the past few decades, and the current station schedule is described on this web site.
For more information on the history of WWV, see "A Century of WWV", a paper written in observance of the 100th Anniversary of the station on October 1, 2019, available here.