So You Want To Be a Ham
1954 Popular Electronics
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.
December 1954 Popular Electronics
of Contents] People old and young enjoy waxing nostalgic about
and learning some of the history of early electronics. Popular Electronics
was published from October 1954 through April 1985. All copyrights are hereby
acknowledged. See all articles from Popular
See all articles from
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.
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:
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.
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.
"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
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.
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 it.
Posted January 23, 2014
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