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    The Novice License Helped Shape the '50s Ham Generation

    By Ronald R. Thomas, W8QYR
    July 28, 2006

    The Novice license helped shape a generation of hams who were first licensed as teenagers in the 1950s. Now 60 (or more) years old, their story deserves to be told.

    Quentin Cassen, W6RI (ex W4YMG), and Clint Sprott, W9AV (ex K4BOM), at Mid-South Amateur Radio Association (Memphis) Field Day in 1958. Well known in Memphis ham circles as Clint and Quent, the "CQ Boys" both got DXCCs before graduating high school. [Photo courtesy of Clint Sprott, W9AV]

    Ken Buser, now W9YNI, of Kankakee, Illinois, operating the ham radio/short wave at a Boy Scout meeting in 1954. Now in his 70s, Ken is still quite active on the air. [Photo courtesy of Clay Melhorn, N9IO]

    Dick Zalewski, W7ZR (ex KN2JSP), in 1954, the same year he operated his first contest. [Photo courtesy of Dick Zalewski, W7ZR]

    Jim Garland, W8ZR (ex WN0ZKE), in 1957 at his Collins 75A-1 receiver and a homebrewed AM transmitter, operating 20 meters. [Photo courtesy of Jim Garland, W8ZR]

    Andy Raymond, then K1BSU, in 1957 at age 15 in Barre, Vermont. [Photo courtesy of Andrew Raymond]

    Until 1951, Amateur Radio had been somewhat oriented toward adults. Obtaining a ham license required going to a Federal Communications Commission office for a 13 WPM Morse code sending and receiving test, as well as a comprehensive written theory exam. In 1951, the FCC introduced the Novice license, which, starting in 1954, would be available only through local volunteer examiners.

    The Novice license was a one-year, entry-level license that required only a 5 WPM Morse code test and a basic theory examination. It offered a simplified route into Amateur Radio, and was very popular with teenagers who wanted to become hams. It could not be renewed, as it was meant to be a "stepping stone" to a higher class license.

    Becoming a Ham

    In that era, teenagers typically learned about Amateur Radio by seeing a ham station, hearing hams on a home radio that covered the shortwave bands, reading an article about ham radio or perhaps by having a friend tell them about ham radio. Today, it is difficult to appreciate how exciting Amateur Radio was, affording the ability to communicate with hams all over the world.

    Teenagers who had the luck to know a radio amateur had a great source of information on how to become a ham. For those who had simply read about Amateur Radio or heard a ham on the air, becoming a ham was more challenging.

    In the process of becoming licensed operators, teenagers acquired many useful skills besides the obvious technical skills associated with being a ham: resourcefulness, persistence, goal setting and many others.

    To locate Amateur Radio information, teenagers often went to local public libraries. If the needed information was not available, the librarians assisted in tracking it down. Sooner or later, persistent research would lead to the American Radio Relay League and its many publications.

    The three big licensing publications were How to Become a Radio Amateur, The License Manual and Learning the Radiotelegraph Code. In the 1950s, those three publications were 50 cents each, well within a teenager's budget. Of course, there was also QST and the Radio Amateur's Handbook. The $3.50 handbook might be borrowed from a public library, along with the monthly copy of QST.

    Preparing for the Novice exam required memorizing the Morse code and practicing both sending and receiving. This took time, perseverance and the willingness to establish goals and achieve them. A simple shortwave receiver enabled teenagers to copy Morse code signals and the ARRL code practice broadcasts from W1AW on the shortwave ham bands.

    Learning the radio theory to pass the written exam was another challenge. In addition to the ARRL publications, local public libraries often supplied books on electricity and radio theory, including Understanding Radio and Essentials of Radio. Learning how to learn would be another useful, lifelong skill.

    Until 1954, cities like Atlanta and Detroit had a local office that offered weekly Novice exams. The FCC also visited cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh on a quarterly basis to administer exams. Teenagers who lived in cities that did not have an examination location might have a challenge to get to one and take the exam. It often required missing a day of school and an all-day trip to and from the exam location.

    Starting in 1954, when examinations became available via mail, the challenge was to find a local ham who could administer the Novice examination. Again, resourcefulness was needed, and where there was a will, there was usually a way.

    Novice license in hand, the next step was to obtain a transmitter. Fortunately, in that era, it was possible to get on the air with a relatively inexpensive, simple transmitter. They were available in kit form or could be home built. For example, AMECO sold a two-tube transmitter in kit form for approximately $20. In the 1950s, a simple receiver like the two-tube Knight Ocean Hopper was available in kit form, also for about $20, less than half the price of a commercially built Hallicrafters S-38 receiver.

    The final step was installing a long wire antenna that might not fit in a ham's backyard. Fortunately, in that era, many people were impressed with Amateur Radio, particularly teenage hams; neighbors were often quite willing to allow them to install their wire antenna across multiple backyards.

    The first ham radio contact -- like the first solo flight in an airplane -- was a never-to-be-forgotten experience. For teenagers, it opened up a whole new world. It also continued to shape them in ways not fully understood or appreciated at the time.

    Being a Ham

    Sprott and Cassen, with Cassen's father, Frank Cassen, W4WBK (SK), on Field Day in 1958. [Photo courtesy of Clint Sprott, W9AV]

    Garland, then 12 years old, leaning against an un-guyed tower that blew down six months later. [Photo courtesy of Jim Garland, W8ZR]

    Teenage hams typically met other hams at local radio club meetings, hamfests and other similar activities. Most of these hams were adults who accepted teenagers as fellow hams, based on the fact they had successfully passed the license exam. Teenagers realized that their hard work was recognized and appreciated.

    The adult radio amateurs came from many different backgrounds and worked in a wide variety of career fields. In the 1950s, most of the adult hams had grown up during the Great Depression of the 1930s and many of them served in World War II. They helped to mold the character and influenced the career decisions of teenage hams. They were positive role modes for teenage hams, and some of those teenagers needed that experience.

    Teenage hams often participated in local radio club activities, which gave them the opportunity to learn leadership skills. In addition, participation in Civil Defense activities taught them the importance of being responsible individuals. They discovered that even adults who were not hams admired them for obtaining an Amateur Radio license.

    Amateur Radio activities helped teenage hams learn good interpersonal skills. Teenage hams learned how to interact with adults and became motivated to enter and be successful in the adult world. Nevertheless, teenage hams still enjoyed their teenage friends, while at the same time aspiring to be successful, productive adults.

    Teenage career goals were expanded as a result of becoming a ham. Teenage operators thought about going to college, or to a technical school after high school. They also considered the technical training opportunities available in the various branches of the military services.

    Amateur Radio introduced teenagers to people who told them about professional careers and how to pursue them. For teenagers growing up in a blue-collar family, the white-collar world of college and professional careers was very unfamiliar. Having someone explain that world and how to enter it was very helpful.

    Thanks to their ham radio experiences, some teenagers studied on their own for Commercial Radiotelephone and Radiotelegraph operator's licenses. Those licenses provided them with a career path after high school, enabling some teenagers to work their way through college.

    Most teenage hams eventually served in the military, where they discovered that their hands-on Amateur Radio experiences were a valuable asset. Some who graduated from college even served as military communications electronics officers.

    Moving On

    By the mid-1960s, those teenage hams had completed their schooling and military service and were moving on with their lives. There were jobs to do, careers to establish and families to raise; however, over the years, many of them helped to introduce new generations of teenagers to Amateur Radio and served as mentors and role models for them, just as they had been when they were teenagers.

    Those hams who were teenagers in the 1950s are now in their golden years, and they are starting to look back and reflect on their lives. Most look back with a sense of nostalgia to the 1950s and their early days in Amateur Radio. When they reflect on those years, life and ham radio both seemed much simpler, and now they are only starting to appreciate the role Amateur Radio played in the shaping of their lives.

    Ronald R. Thomas, W8QYR, began his ham radio career in 1954 with a Novice class license and currently holds an Amateur Extra class license. He received a Bachelor's Degree with honors from Youngstown University in 1963, and from 1964 to 1967 served as a Communications Electronics Officer in the USAF at Cape Canaveral, achieving the rank of Captain. He has written over 100 articles and two books on telecommunications. Ronald currently lives in Atlanta, where he works as a communications specialist.


    Page last modified: 08:20 AM, 28 Jul 2006 ET
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