The Novice license turns 60!

Posted by Nate Bargmann on Thu, Jul 7, 2011

The Novice Historical Society has been created to celebrate 60 years since the creation of the Novice class license in the USA.  The Novice became the pathway into amateur radio for the next 40 years until the Morse exam was eliminated from  the Technician license in February 1991.  Novice licenses are no longer issued, that stopped on April 15, 2000 with the implementation of “Restructuring” and the current three-class license structure in the USA.  However, holders of a current Novice license may continue to renew it.

Here is my story.

Credit for my interest in things electronic goes to my dad who, although never a licensed radio amateur, did work on local TV sets and that fueled my interest in electronics and telecommunications.  He received his electronics training in the army during the Korean conflict although he never was deployed outside the USA.  CB was big during the ’70s when I was growing up and the idea of two-way radio fascinated me.  When I was 16 we bought a number of CBs for the farm and I also used mine for contact with high school friends.  I did get a taste of DX one afternoon chatting with a gent in Pennsylvania briefly.  Of course I wanted more, legally.

I became interested in amateur radio a bit over 30 years ago just as I was to graduate high school.  I needed a topic for a term paper and for some odd reason paging idly through an encyclopedia amateur radio caught my eye.  I wrote what I could find on the topic, which wasn’t much, and most importantly, obtained the address of ARRL and wrote for more information (what World Wide Web?!).

I found a license manual at a local Radio Shack titled From 5 to 1000 Watts, as I recall.  After learning about the various license classes in existence at the time (early 1981), I believed that Technician would be the best starting point. After all, it would allow me access to the local repeaters and 2m simplex operation on FM where I could be a part of the local amateur radio activity. While DX and such held its own interest, it was the local stuff that really interested me. There was just one huge problem, getting the Tech required a trip to the FCC field office and sitting for the exam elements 1A (5 WPM Morse Code), 2 (Novice written), and 3 (Technician/General written). That seemed rather intimidating (I was sort of shy those years). There was another problem—learning Morse Code. I was a bit too shy and probably a bit too proud to seek out help from anyone else those years so I studied alone in near futility as one can probably imagine.

Fast forward to 1983. I had spent the previous two years studying, learning, reading about amateur radio, building several Heathkits and small projects from books and learning Morse’s Code in fits and starts and then stops after about a half dozen letters. I was going nowhere it seemed (here is where you think I sucked it up and asked for help. Nope.) and there were real steps being taken to implement the VE system and bring exams closer to where I lived. The first change was to the Novice class with a published question pool and a change to the examiner giving the Morse (1A) and written (2) exams at the same time and then mailing the completed Form 610 (remember those?) to Gettysburg. That was the motivation I needed and with help from Code Quick I passed and received my Novice, KA0RNY, in early November 1983.  My thanks to Ernie Wolff, W0GCJ (SK) for proctoring my Novice exam.  I was the last in a long line of local amateurs he helped get their start in the hobby.

Now you’re probably thinking I got on the air and made a lot of contacts. Nope! To get going I put together a Heath HW-8 as it was affordable even though I was saving for Heath’s HW-5400 and had its matching power supply built and working.  I tried getting on without much success. On New Years Day 1984 I got on 15m and the band was alive. Even with my poorly (read not) calibrated HW-8 it was easy to find the Novice segment.  I made a call and received an answer and promptly froze up. My log notes that he was “lost to band conditions” but I know the truth. And that was the extent of my Novice “career”.  My license lay dormant and unused from that day forward except as proof to obtain an amateur radio operator plate for my Blazer.

A bit over a year later in January 1985 I upgraded to Tech at a VE session in Topeka from which I enjoyed meeting the locals and forming a local club of which I may now be the president for life!  After six months or so by the middle of ‘85, I realized there were new horizons to be found and an upgrade to Advanced beckoned (I wasn’t to be satisfied with General as the written material came easily to me). So with the help of a local, Fred, WB0SZS, now KF0HS, on 2m FM simplex for coaching and 10m CW I gained enough confidence with my Morse ability (Ha!) to start using those Novice privileges that I still had with the Tech and started working CW.  The first unassisted CW QSO took place on my birthday and I will admit that I had copied a QSO and then called one of the stations after they signed.  It worked!  The freeze-up didn’t matter much as I had his info. I was on my way and soon had my speed up to 13 WPM or so with the side effect of some very enjoyable QSOs.  In October I sat for and passed Elements 1B (13 WPM) and 4A (Advanced written) and walked out with an Advanced upgrade where I would stay until July 1992 when I passed Elements 1C (20 WPM) and 4B (Amateur Extra written) for my Amateur Extra privileges.

Starting out, Morse was the greatest hurdle I faced or at least made myself believe I faced. I made myself believe for several years that I would probably never get beyond 5 WPM or so and 20 WPM was certainly out of reach. Yet, I gained enough proficiency to pass the exams by getting on the air and enjoying myself. Would I have ever tried CW if Morse were not a requirement? I don’t know. I’d like to think that I would have. I suppose I’ll never know.


Comment by Nate Bargmann on 2019-06-16 18:31:17 -0500

This post has the report referenced above.

A Personal Milestone and a Look Back

Comment by Nate Bargmann on 2022-10-26 06:24:00 -0500

Link updated to the current Novice History URL.

Speaking with my uncle (dad’s brother) before dad’s funeral last year, I asked him about their both being sent to radio school after being drafted into the army. He related that he had bought a correspondence course on TV repair around 1950—their dad considered that a waste of money but may have never realized that course kept both of his sons out of the infantry. Any way, after he completed the course my dad took to it and in the process repaired the TV that my uncle had built but had the picture upside down! The army clearly learned of this bit of education (neither had attended high school) and put them in radio school and out of the infantry. They are proof that education, even self-taught, can give one a leg up on the competition.

Incidentally, now good friend Bill Carpenter, NZ0T, was a member of the exam team in Topeka in January 1985. He was also one of the three examiners to sign my Certificate of Successful Completion of Examination (CSCE) form. We discovered this several years ago after I found some of those old documents.

I did finally get out of being president for life of the local radio club and have now assumed the Trustee position and I am pleased to be the holder of the W0GCJ callsign for the club.