December 1954 Popular Electronics
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
Being able to pass a 5 words-per-minute
(wpm) Morse code test at one time was a primary requirement for obtaining the lowest
level amateur radio operator license - Novice Class - in addition to passing a written
test. Many more people failed the code test than failed the written test. In fact,
the code portion kept many aspiring amateur radio operators from ever even taking
the test. It was a barrier which anyone worthy of the brotherhood must overcome.
The intimidation factor was pretty significant. As time marched on and the ranks
of amateur license holders was dwindling quickly, the Federal Communications Commission
(FCC) in 1990 dropped the code requirement and created the Technician Class license
that required only the passing of a 35-question true/false written test. Amateur
license holders began increasing immediately. This story from the pre-no-code days
describes the preparation for earning a General Class license. It is the last of
a 3-part series published by Popular Electronics during its first three
months of publication in 1954.
So You Want To Be a Ham
Your First Trip to the FCC
By Robert Hertzberg, W2DJJ
Part 3. "Buck Fever" is a common ailment among prospective license applicants
- don't let it get you.
Charles Finkleman, radio license clerk in the New York FCC office,
adjusts speed of automatic tape sending machine to 13 words-per-minute.
Two ham license applicants take the code receiving test at the
New York Office of FCC.
If applicant passes receiving test, he is required to demonstrate
his "fist" for examiner.
Hunters who are anxious to bag a good trophy during the Fall season will practice
on a target range all summer to perfect their hold, their trigger squeeze, their
judgment of the wind, etc. Then what happens when they actually get into the woods?
In many cases, the first time they see a vulnerable animal they can't make the sights
stand still, they jerk the trigger off badly, and they virtually collapse into a
state of nervous prostration. There's an old name for this affliction: buck fever.
Exactly the same thing seems to happen to many prospective hams. They'll practice
the code until they can copy as fast as they can write. But when they get down to
the nearest Federal Communications Commission field office for the 13 words-per-minute
test for the general class license, their ears block up and their fingers freeze
on their pencils. In most cases this condition is common nervousness, but sometimes
Listen to the advice of a man who is in a position to give it: Charles Finkleman,
radio license clerk in the New York office of the FCC, who gives the tests to as
many as 500 applicants each month. He says:
"Too many people rush down after the first time someone checks them off at what
they think is thirteen-per-minute. They don't make enough allowance for timing errors,
or for the fact that they take the test in strange surroundings. They should protect
themselves by becoming really proficient at full fifteen words-per-minute before
they try our thirteen. We don't depend on uncertain hand sending. We use an automatic
tape machine that is periodically checked for timing accuracy. When it's adjusted
for thirteen, it sends at thirteen, no more, no less, When a failing applicant grumbles
a little and infers that the sending sounded sort of 'fast,' we just smile."
One nice thing about the FCC code test is that an initial failure doesn't wash
you out completely. Just wait thirty days, practice in the meantime, and try again.
Three or four attempts before success is achieved are not unusual, says Mr. Finkleman,
and he can recall some slow but persistent learners who made it after nine tries!
An important fact to bear in mind is that you wear earphones for the test. Many
would-be hams do group practice with a loudspeaker working off an audio oscillator.
This is fine, but the signals are likely to sound somewhat different when you put
on a strange pair of "cans" (as hams call earphones). It is therefore advisable
to do your final practice with phones, to get their feel on your head. Actually,
you'll find them an advantage, because they shut out room noises.
The FCC tape runs for five minutes without interruption. The words of the text
are "clear" (that is, real words), but they aren't necessarily connected to form
completely understandable sentences. This is done to prevent you from guessing at
words and filling them in. You don't have the time for this anyway. The instant
the tape machine stops, an FCC man rushes by and picks up all the papers. Contrary
to the general impression among applicants, you don't have to copy the entire text
correctly. You pass if anyone minute of the transmission is copied down properly.
Don't get into a lather, therefore, if you stumble over the first groups of words.
Don't attempt to backtrack on them, but relax and concentrate on what's coming.
You can afford to spend the first minute or two just listening, getting onto the
swing of the transmission, and calming down the butterflies in your stomach. Then
when you start copying, make it good.
If you flunk the code receiving test, you're finished for the day, right there.
You cannot take the written and hope for a passing mark based on a good average.
If you pass, the FCC inspector will listen to your keying for a few seconds, and
then give you the papers for the written test. By this time you'll be completely
at ease. It's comforting to know that very few people who pass the code fail to
make the written.
The latter consists of 45 multiple-choice type questions, each of which has five
choices. To answer a question, you merely identify by number one of the five possible
answers. Some of the questions, usually about five of them, require you to draw
diagrams of simple radio equipment. The questions are mostly technical, but involve
nothing that you won't find in any ham manual. There's no particular time limit,
but you must finish the test at one sitting. You can't go out for lunch, look up
some of the answers you don't know, and then come back and check them off! An hour
is good average time, and many people breeze through it in thirty minutes.
The written test is usually graded immediately, and you are notified if you passed
or failed. If you passed, you have nothing to do but wait for your papers to be
processed in the main FCC office in Washington. The license is issued and mailed
from there, not from the regional FCC office in which you appeared for the examination.
This may take a month or more, so just be patient. You cannot go on the air until
the ticket arrives, and you won't know what your call letters are until you see
the license. It's a waste of time to ask for specific combinations of letters to
match your initials, nickname, or anything else. The calls are issued in rotation,
and one is as good as another.
If you failed the test, you can return in 30 days for another go at it.
As mentioned in the first article of this series, you are required to take the
test in person at an FCC office if you live within 75 miles of it. If you live farther,
or are physically disabled, or are serving in the Armed Forces, you can take the
test before a volunteer examiner exactly as prescribed for the Novice and technician
grade licenses in that article.
In some states you can get special automobile license plates to match your radio
call letters. Your license is all the documentation you need. The list of states
offering this privilege is growing rapidly. Inquire at your nearest motor vehicle
bureau. There is usually a small extra fee for the plates, but it's certainly worth
Posted October 7, 2021
(updated from original post on 1/23/2014)