The Art & Skill of Radio-Telegraphy

-Second Revised Edition-
William G. Pierpont N0HFF

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Chapter 33 - A Brief History of United States Operator Licensing Requirements and Military Training

In the Beginning
Prior to 1912 no licenses  of  any  kind  were  required, either for stations or for amateur operators.   An amateur, however, might apply to the Navy Department which would issue a "Certificate of Skill."   This merely stated that the successful applicant was "proficient" in code.  It had no legal value or necessity.

The First Laws 1912 to 1927
In 1912 Congress passed the first laws requiring licenses for wireless  operators  and  stations whose  signals  would:-
a) interfere with government or bonafide  commercial stations (those open to public use) or
b) cross state lines.
This meant that very, very many "little" stations  and their operators did not need licenses.  "Little" often included even those up to one kilowatt, the maximum allowed for any licensed station.  This was because the "passive" (mostly crystal detector) receivers in those early days were so insensitive that reception over land masses beyond a hundred miles or so was exceptional.  The word "amateur" does not appear in these regulations, but is covered by the term "experimental".  [In England, by contrast, a license was required even for owning receiving equipment.]

From 1912 until 1933 operator and station licenses were separately issued and were impressive diploma-like documents about 8 by 11 inches.  They had to be posted at the station location and were usually framed by the operator.  Initially there were two classes of license,  with identical qualifications.  Amateur First Grade was by examination by a government examiner covering: radio laws, regulations, proper adjustment and operation of equipment, along with sending and receiving tests at 5 wpm in International Morse code.  For those living too far away to come in for personal examination, there was an Amateur Second Grade whose applicant had to certify by mail that he could meet these identical requirements.   In Aug. 1919  the required speed was raised to 10 wpm.

When the U.S. entered WW-I all radio activity, receiving as well as transmitting , except for that specifically authorized by the Military, was prohibited.  All equipment (including all antennas) had to be either dismantled or sealed.  This began on 17 April 1917 and continued until 12 April 1919 when receiving was once again permitted, and finally when amateur transmitting was again allowed on 1 October 1919.  1923:- a new Extra First Grade was created requiring at least two years experience as a licensed operator.

A new written examination included requiring the applicant to diagram a transmitter and receiver and to explain the principles of their operation, plus a code speed test at 20 wpm (the speed required of a Commercial First Class operator).  The license was printed on pink paper!  Such operators were qualified for "Special" station licenses which conveyed CW privileges on certain wavelengths longer that 200 meters and also gave them distinctive call signs.  As shorter wavelengths came to be used this grade of license lost popularity.     In the early 1920's licensed amateurs began to get skittish about working unlicensed stations (with their self-assigned calls), including the "little boys with spark coils."  (They were often a big annoyance and source of interference.)   The Department of Commerce, however,  seems to have taken little notice of them unless they caused serious interference

Most of these unlicensed stations had already vanished  from the air when the Radio Act of 1927 replaced the Radio Act of 1912 and brought all radio transmissions under regulation for the first time.   (Legal doctrine had by then come to hold that Congress had power to regulate intrastate activity where its total effect reacted upon interstate activity.)  The days of the "little unlicensed station" were over.  1927:- "Special" station licenses.  Amateur First Grade renamed "Amateur class".  Amateur Second Grade renamed Temporary Amateur Grade and valid for one year only, and renewable.  1928:- "Special" licenses reinstated on somewhat different terms, and called "Extra First Class" operator.  1929:-  the 20 meter band was opened to phone, and Extra First Class licenses were extended by an endorsement "for unlimited radio-telephone privileges" on that band.  ??1932:- Extra First Class renamed Class A, Amateur Class renamed Class B, and Temporary Class renamed Class C.  Ten (10) wpm speed required of all classes.

Operator and station licenses combined on wallet sized card.  The special endorsement (of 1929) became available for all amateurs with at least one year of experience, upon passing a special test on radiotelephone subjects.  This endorsement was now extended to include use of phone on 75 meters also.

In 1933, after the creation of the Federal Radio Commission, amateur regulations were completely revised and operator and station licenses were combined on a single, wallet-sized card, good for three years.   Extra First Class licences would no longer be issued.  A minimum code speed of 10 wpm was required of all three classes of license: A, B and C.  Class A (advanced) required one year of experience, a written examination on both phone and telegraph theory and regulations, and conveyed exclusive phone use on 20 and 75 meters, and was renewable by application.  The Class B (general)  examination covered less on phone operation, and gave all privileges not reserved for Class A, but required re-examination for renewal.   Class C, a temporary license for those living 125 or more miles from an FRC examining point (administered by class A or B amateur), differed from Class B only in being taken by mail.  1936 the code speed for all classes was raised from 10 to 13 wpm.

1951 And After
1951:- the whole structure was revised for Amateur licenses: Extra Class (new, available 1 Ja. 1952), 20 wpm, no exclusive privileges, two years Advanced Class (previously Class A), 13 wpm General Class (Previously Class B) 13 wpm Conditional Class (previously Class C, by mail, 125 miles or more), 13 wpm Technician Class (new, available 1 July 1951), 5 wpm, 5 years Novice Class (new), 5 wpm, one year, non-renewable
1952:- hams licensed before May 1917 eligible for Extra class without examination.
1953:- no new Advanced Class to be issued.
1954:- Novice and Technician available by mail only after 10 Jan., if over 75 miles from examination point.
1964:- on 17 Mar. filling fee $4.00 assessed for new or renewal of license, except no feel for novice.
1967:- incentive licensing was adopted.  Advanced class was reactivated and given more spectrum than General class, but less than Extra class. Novice class licenses were extended to two years.
1968:- Advanced and Extra were made available for shut-ins, and Technician class eligible for Novice.
1970:- fees increased to $9.00, five years license duration.
1976: required new Technician class to be tested by FCC examiner.

Volunteer Examiners
1983 Volunteer Examiner (VE) system set up to conduct Technician and General class by December.

At the outbreak of WW-I the U.S. Military forces desperately needed wireless operators and equipment.  Many amateurs volunteered as operators and as teachers.  Training in all phases was minimal, and "operators" were usually graduated without having had any hands-on experience with the actual equipment or operating procedures.  (Absolute radio silence was the rule in general - except for the most extreme emergencies on the high seas.)

For operators in the WW-II period Signal Corps graduation requirements were:  25 wpm plain language, 20 wpm code groups with pencil or mill, receiving, and 25 wpm sending. Qualifications for field operators - 20 wpm pencil printing copy and perfect sending copy at 15 wpm;  for fixed base operators - 35 wpm straight copy on mill.

For Marine Corps graduation they were:  20-23 wpm plain text, 15-18 wpm coded groups, 17 wpm perfect sending of plain text.  WWII training varied widely between various schools, but included actual operating procedures though wired QSO's among themselves to overcome the beginners' initial "buck fever" and to set them up as operators.

Real radio interference -- learning to copy through QRM and noise -- was added, and it became louder as the student progressed.  Advanced students also practiced on the "mill" (typewriter).  For high speed training, there was a room where high speed press was copied for practice.

In 1988 a U.S. Special Forces radio operator's test required  18 5-character groups (e.g., QY9/Z 6G.J4  X5,B7, etc.) a minute.

The Art and Skill of Radio-Telegraphy-Second Revised Edition-
©William G. Pierpont N0HFF