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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
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
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: buck fever.
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 it
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
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.
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 it.
January 23, 2014
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