It was shortly after my 15th birthday, in January of 1974, that I nervously took my Novice test. No need to visit the FCC, since anyone with a General Class or higher license could administer a Novice exam. Mac, an Extra, sent code to me and somehow, I managed to get 25 characters in a row. I passed the written part fairly easily. Now I just had to wait for my ticket to arrive in the mail.It turned out to be a very long wait! In the meantime, I continued to practice receiving code off the air at home with my Realistic DX-150B receiver and at the club with the Gonset. I was always doing odd jobs for money in our neighborhood, so I was able to scrape up the $95.00 for a brand new Heathkit DX-60B transmitter in the middle of February of 1974. Building the transmitter from a kit was a great, first-time experience for me. I learned how to solder, use hand tools and follow instructions. I think the latter was the toughest, since I wanted to build the kit as fast as possible. Like a true novice of anything, I made mistakes and when first turned on, the DX-60B let some smoke out! I had to start from the beginning to find my wiring errors, which took me nearly as long as it did to build the kit.
Finally, on March 29th, 1974, my Novice license arrived in the mail with call sign, WN1TDN. I met one of my fellow club members, Scott Randall, WA1QEP, at school the next day and told him my ticket came in. I was just a high school freshman, Scott was a senior; upperclassmen usually didn’t give the time of day to freshman, yet Scott gladly took me under his wing and set up a schedule for the next afternoon, after school.
I had previously built a dipole (at least I thought I did, but it was really a non resonant “T” antenna) which was hung between two apple trees about 10 feet off the ground. My receiver antenna, an end fed wire to the apple tree in the front yard, was already in place as well. I needed two antennas because I didn’t know about TR switches yet. I was very pleased to have a dip in the plate current when loading up the first time. Adjusted to 100 mA, the DX-60B, with its 3.716 MHz crystal (no VFOs were allowed for Novices), ran at 75 Watts input to the plate of the final amplifier; the FCC rule of the day. I was ready for my first QSO!Though the date of my first Novice Ticket said March 15th, I considered my first day of being a ham as March 30th. That afternoon, I got on with Scott and managed to send and copy the basic information needed at 5 wpm. I was so nervous, my head was spinning and I found it very difficult to concentrate while receiving. After completing my first QSO, I realized how happy I was to give up my CB microphone for a hand key! In the following months, I got much better at receiving code and made dozens of contacts while learning more about my station.
I had a lot to learn! After about a month, my final tube expired. My Dad knew the Chief Engineer at Channel 30, Bill Canora, who gave him a new 6146 (I was later hired by Bill, 6 years later). I was back in business, but not for long. Gosh that tube sure glowed white hot! Sheepishly, my Dad asked for another 6146. Bill replied, “Bobby has to be doing something wrong”. Dad repeated that to statement to me, which meant, “This is the last tube you’re going to get from me!”. I began to investigate. I soon learned about SWR. Hey, I had a dip in the plate current right?. A brand new Archer SWR meter was purchased for $9.95 and I soon had it hooked up to the RF output jack and my “T” antenna. Yes, something was terribly wrong; the forward power was equal to the reflected power!
At that time, new crystals arrived in the mail from CW Crystals in Marshfield MO.; all were for 40 meters, though many of them were to be used on 15 and 10 meters. My “T” antenna worked on 15 meters with a 2:1 SWR, so I abandoned 80 meters. Instead of working the Eastern US on 80 meters, I was now working DX; the Canal Zone being my first. I soon learned what a dipole was too and strung one across my bedroom ceiling for 10 meters.
I was a happy Novice. I got on the air at least once a week and I became quite proficient with the code. I even bought an antenna tuner; no more melting plates. I participated in the 1974 10 meter contest and had the highest novice score in CT. Dating girls and getting my driver’s license became a priority, but I still got on the air. However, my two year, non-renewable license would eventually run out. I studied and studied, but didn’t comprehend some of the math needed to pass the General. I hadn’t learned logarithms yet in school. In October of 1975, I attempted to pass my General when the FCC came to the ARRL Convention in Hartford. I missed it by only one question. Feeling poorly about failing, I roamed the convention; it was the first one I ever attended. Gosh Hams are a funny looking lot. I felt so very out of place being 16 and around old timers that started with sparks. One thing I remember from my Novice days: I got to work hams who were on the air in the days of spark. I also heard many of them on 80 meter AM in the afternoon, reflecting upon their early (Novice) days with spark coils and bailing wire antennas. I’ll never forget those OTs.The following February, 1976, I convinced my Father to drive me to Boston for my General Test. I only had my driver’s license for a short time and didn’t dare to drive that far. That was a horrible day; it poured hard the whole way up to Boston. It was still dark outside when we left and the highway was loaded with trucks. The interstates was only two narrow lanes until it connected to the Mass Pike. After nearly three hours, we arrived at the Custom House, a very old, but historical building, in downtown Boston. The FCC was located near the top floor. The exam room was a dingy green, with water stains on the wall from the leaky roof. The room was a perfect square, which made for poor acoustics during the code tests. About 30 people were packed into this rather small, muggy room.
I was first asked to send code. I proceeded to send from a pamphlet the examiner gave me, and soon he yelled “stop”. I didn’t hear him, so he hollered, “STOP!”. Oh boy, I was off to a good start! I then passed the code, despite the echoing room. After everyone had completing the written exam, the examiner called out each examinee, by name, and hollered either “You passed”, or, “You failed”. My name came around; “Allison, you failed”. I was caught off guard and said, What? At the top of his lungs, the curmudgeon examiner yelled, “YOU FAILED!!!”. Oh what a day. I had to face my Dad, who was quite angry having missed work and driving all the way to Boston in a rain storm. I was doomed.
And now, the end of my first Novice career: I got on the air March 15th, the last day of my license. After making several contacts that day, I stayed up until midnight; the moment my license expired. At five minutes of, I had to wrap up my last QSO. I remember sending, “73 OM. My license is expiring in five minutes. See you in a year, I hope”. My eyes were filled with tears. You see at that time, if you didn’t upgrade to Technician or higher, you had to wait an entire year before you were eligible to take another Amateur Radio exam. How brutal was that? No one should ever have to lose their license like that again, ever!I eventually learned all about logs, trigonometry, and the other math needed that I didn’t know when trying for the General. While a freshman in College at the University of Hartford, I passed my Novice Test once again, in December of 1977, with the call sign I still use to this day. My upgrade to General was easy and later on in 1988, I became an Extra Class. Today, I enjoy all the bands, 160 meters through 70 cm and all the modes. CW was and still is my favorite mode, but I also enjoy modes of phone and digital modes.One thing about Ham radio: it led me into the field of electronics and engineering. While in college in 1979, I started working for WVIT- Channel 30, as a broadcast engineer; a job that I had fun with for 28 years. In 2008, I left a successful career in television for my dream job: as Test Engineer at the ARRL Laboratory. Back in 1974, I read The ARRL Radio Amateur’s Handbook. I thought the authors of that book were radio gods. I would have never guessed that later in life, I would have the opportunity to be listed as one of the authors in the Handbook.
My Novice days are vivid. I remember clearly what it was like starting out in the hobby and knowing very, very little. Today, I certainly have compassion for those new hams starting out. My Novice day memories help me to look through the eyes of new hams and I’m better able to help them through their technical difficulties when they call me at the Lab. It’s OK to be a new ham; savor every minute of it! Someday, you’ll be helping other become a ham.
73 de WB1GCM
ARRL Test Engineer
I was 15 years old when I got my first Novice, WN1TDN, 18 years old when I passed it the second time as WB1GCM. I had the same station location, situated on an old former apple orchard, in an area of Glastonbury called, “Apple Hill”. I was on one of the higher spots; it was a good location for VHF later on. During the period between Novice licenses, I still had a station set up and I continued to tinker with old vacuum tube equipment. I was able to test tubes at my local drug store! I also would practice copying CW so I wouldn’t get rusty. Thanks to many ARRL publications, I continued to learn about radio and electronics during my forced down time. I couldn’t get on the air, but I could still learn new things, like different antenna designs.
After I passed my second Novice, I immediately built up a new ham shack in my parent’s basement, using a Hallicrafter’s FPM-300 MK II (Hallicrafter’s last rig) and a 150 foot end fed wire. A this time (1977), there was no longer a crystal control only rule. I figured this was going to be a much better place to operate, since I was closer to a possible good ground. A ground was a challenge in that old orchard; bedrock was always just below the topsoil, so I buried lots of wire just below the surface. By the time my second Novice license arrived in the mail, I was ready to get on the air.
I actually stayed a Novice until March of 1980. During my second Novice career, the Novice became a renewable license, so I was in no hurry to upgrade in order to use phone; I loved CW! I did get WAS as a Novice (#33,660) and also was able to copy 25 wpm on paper at the end of my Novice career.
Early during my second Novice License (January of 1978), I built a second ham shack on the second floor of my parents barn. It consisted of a BC-348Q WWII receiver and a fine home-brew 5 band 50 watt CW transmitter, with an inverted “L” antenna. The equipment sat on an 1890’s office desk which once belonged to a local dentist. The barn became a special hideout for me; you see, I was away from my mother’s stomping feet. In my basement ham shack, I would occasionally get into her television set on the floor above, mostly when she was watching Channel 3 while I was on 15 meters. Mom would stomp on the floor and give me the riot act for, “breaking the TV”. Sometimes, she would stomp on the floor when I was studying for college and the transmitter was off! The barn had a separate antenna, which was much farther away from Mom’s TV, so I used that shack during her favorite shows and when I “needed space”.
The barn had a rustic atmosphere, being decorated with old decoy ducks, antique furniture, and old telegraph insulators. My 1931 Model A coupe was stored on the ground floor, beneath the shack. A pot belly stove made the upstairs of the barn habitable during the cold New England weather. While running during the cold of Winter, the heat from the stove would occasionally wake up a dormant housefly or two. They would sluggishly bang into everything in the place until the fire went out. The barn had a nice aroma, always smelling like pine beams and cedar shingles which it was made from. I kept adding equipment and antennas to both shacks, but the barn was my favorite spot to operate. After moving away from home after college in 1983, I was still able to maintain the barn ham shack until just a couple of years ago, using it while visiting my parents or when I just needed space J. The barn still stands today, with a new owner (a friend of the family) and has been restored to its former glory. I would say it was a great shack during my second Novice experience.
Bob Allison, WB1GCM
ARRL, the national association for Amateur Radio™
225 Main Street, Newington, CT, 06111-1494 USA
Telephone: (860) 594-0210 FAX (860) 594-0346