Ham radio

If you're interested in getting a ham radio license but don't think you have the technical background to pass the tests, meet two ham radio operators.

Evelyn I. Fox (WB9QZA) was first licensed as a Novice in 1974, at age 77.

''When I was a little girl,'' she recalls, ''one of my neighbors, a young boy , had a tower with an aerial on it in his mother's garden. He was taking code over the air. It was a very mysterious thing to me, and I always wanted to learn that.''

After the death of her husband, she decided to take a license course at a nearby ham radio club.

''I almost didn't go into the class,'' she says. ''There were mostly men, and I was kind of timid. Finally, the instructor's wife said, 'You're in the right place, come on in.' ''

''When I started, I didn't know an ohm from a watt!'' she adds.

Today, Mrs. Fox holds a Technician-class license, which requires a more thorough knowledge of amateur practice and procedure than does the Novice ''ticket.''

At the other end of the scale sits Guy Mitchell (WD0DVX), who passed his Novice exam in 1977, just 15 days before his fifth birthday.

''It started with his dad,'' says Mrs. Mitchell, also a ham radio operator. When he took a license course, she became interested and followed suit.

''Guy would hear me practice the code,'' she says, ''and he caught on real fast.'' As for boning up for the theory portion of the Novice test, ''Guy knew how to read, so a lot was memorization,'' she says.

Between these extremes lie the hundreds of thousands of amateurs in the United States - many with no background in electronics - who have passed the Morse code and radio theory tests required to get the necessary operating licenses from the Federal Communications Commission.

As if to sweeten the pot, the FCC over the past 10 years has expanded the privileges for holders of Novice licenses - the entry-level classification.

Under the old regime, the Novice license was valid for one year and couldn't be renewed. Novices were held to a power limit of no more than75 watts going into the final amplifier stage of the transmitter. And transmitter tuning had to be controlled by a crystal, which because of its physical characteristics and the circuits used in Novice transmitters can only be used on one frequency. Thus , if you wanted to operate more than one of the four high-frequency (HF) ham bands, you had to have several crystals.

Today, Novices can use transmitters (with variable-frequency oscillator tuning circuits) that allow them to roam the reaches of the Novice bands at will. Moreover, the Novice ticket is valid for five years, can be renewed, and the power limit has been boosted to 250 watts. (The legal limit for amateurs is 1,000 watts.)

The Novice exam consists of a 20-question, multiple-choice section covering very basic radio practices, procedures, and regulations, and a 10-question fill-in test based on a 5- to 6-minute Morse code message. The message, one side of a typical on-the-air conversation, is sent at five words per minute (w.p.m.).

The Technician license, the next step up, keeps the five w.p.m. code test, but asks 50 questions calling for a more advanced knowledge. The Technician ticket at one time gave its holder broad operating privileges, but only on ham bands above 30 MHz - VHF, UHF, and microwave frequencies. Now Technicians may operate on Novice frequencies as well, giving them access to HF bands.

The Technician license is followed by the General (13 w.p.m. code test and the same theory exam as the Technician), the advanced (13 w.p.m. code test but a tougher, 50-question theory exam), and the Extra (20 w.p.m. code test and the toughest written test this side of Noviceland, but only 40 questions). The passing grade for every exam: 70 percent.

Perhaps the most-used means of boning up for the Novice exam is through classes offered by many local amateur radio clubs.

The American Radio Relay League, the national umbrella organization for ham radio enthusiasts, can provide the names and phone numbers of clubs in your area. The league's address is 225 Main Street, Newington, Conn. 06111. Inquiries should be directed to the Club and Training Department.

The cost of a club education varies. Usually, students pay for books and materials, which often run less than $20. Some clubs charge a nominal registration fee. Classes are also given through high school and community college adult education programs.

One of the main strengths of club courses is the support students get from one another. Mrs. Fox, for example, took her Novice and Technician courses with the Yellow Thunder Amateur Radio Club in Baraboo, Wis.

''I had a little code in the Civil Air Patrol during the war,'' she said. ''The theory, though, was hard for me.

''But the boys were awfully good to me,'' she adds, in describing how classmates and her instructor helped her over the rough spots.

It's possible to study on your own. A number of books are available that lay the material out in an easy-to-understand manner. A short list of sources for code and theory study material is found elsewhere on this page.

Regardless of how you choose to master the Novice material, it's wise to start learning Morse code as soon as you can. This is the one aspect of the license requirement that seems to meet with the most resistance from students - which is a shame, because code isn't tough to learn.

When taking a Novice course with a club, instructors set aside time for code practice. If you're studying on your own, you can use prerecorded cassette tapes from a number of sources, including the American Radio Relay League. It's also helpful, and fun, to listen to conversations on the Novice bands or to code practice runs broadcast by the league over its station W1AW. Schedules and frequencies for W1AW code practice sessions are available from the league.

The key is learning by sound, not by sight. Don't memorize by looking at a chart of dots and dashes. That adds an additional translation step. You're ultimately trying to respond to the letter (and as you get better, entire words) by writing it down when you hear it, without having to think about it. Gradually , you'll find code changing from halting speech to flowing conversation.

When it comes time to take the test, relax. This is a hobby, remember? There's no real pressure on you. If you've taken a class, your instructor will usually administer the exam. If you've studied on your own, you'll either have to find a ham willing to serve as a volunteer examiner or ask the local FCC office to assign a ham to administer your test. The examiner must hold a General-class license or higher. The code portion comes first. If you pass the code but fail the rest of the exam, you'll get credit for the code portion for a year. You'll only need to retake the theory portion. Those who fail part or all of the test must wait 30 days to retake it.

Earning the license, however, is only the beginning!

Next: How to set up your first station

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