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Radio Room

Getting Your Ham License


Radio has always held a special fascination for me and for years I've entertained the notion of becoming a ham. I can trace that interest as far back as elementary school to the day the teacher introduced our class to the school's library. At some point I wandered over the Applied Science section, where I found two books that would eventually change my life. The first was Alfred Morgan's The Boy's First Book of Radio and Electronics, and the second was a beat up copy of the ARRL's Radio Amateur's Handbook. As much as any factor, these books led to my present occupation as an electrical engineer.

On numerous occasions since, people have inquired as to whether I was a ham. "No," I'd answer, "I'm not, but it sounds like something I'd be interested in." I'd mull the idea over in my head. I would do some reading and a little bit of studying, yet ultimately one of the hundred-and-seventeen other things in my life would distract me.

I can't tell you why, but the idea resurfaced in my mind spontaneously earlier this year (2003), and I found myself quite resolute about the whole thing. I studied, tested, and passed. I'm proud to have become AC7ZL.

If you're reading this, it's probable that you're considering becoming a ham as well. At this early stage in the game, I can hardly claim to be an expert on the subject, though the fact that I have a call sign suggests that I did something right. If you'll indulge me for a few more paragraphs, I'd like to share some of my thoughts in the hope that they may be helpful to you.

"Do... Or Not Do... There Is No Try"

Yoda, the ageless Jedi guru in Star Wars offers this advice to his apprentices. The character is fictional, but the advice is sound. Passing a ham exam requires some effort on your part. I'm not saying it's difficult. I'm simply saying you need to be committed to your own success. Depending upon what your present knowledge level is, you're going to have to do some studying and preparatory work.

Decide What You Want To Do

The FCC's licensing structure in the U.S.A. provides for three classes of license, the Technician, the General, and the Extra. While the Technician class is considered to be entry-level by many people, the privileges associated with it are significant. The General and Extra classes are nice because they allow operators to utilize additional bands and additional communication modes.

If all you care about is 2-meter communications, a Technician level license is all you'll ever need. In my case, I'm interested in using the HF bands. You don't get access to those until you become a General or better.

Needless to say, each class has a corresponding test, which you must pass to become licensed. You must also pass all of the tests associated with the levels below the one you're after. For example, if you're after an Extra class, you're going to have to pass the tests for the Technician and General classes first.

In addition, the General and Extra classes require that the applicant demonstrate the ability to receive 5 words per minute in Morse code.

Deciding what you want to do helps you target a specific license, which in turn helps focus the scope of your studies.

Visit The ARRL's Web Site For Study Materials

The ARRL (American Radio Relay League) is a ham radio advocacy organization that dates back to 1914. The ARRL promotes ham radio, lobbies the government for spectrum space and policies that are friendly toward amateur radio, and sponsors numerous ham-related activities.

The ARRL also operates an outstanding publishing business, producing and distributing numerous books, video tapes, and CD-ROMs on radio-related topics. As part of their stable of books, they've produced study guides to prepare prospective hams for their licensing examinations.

In my case, I purchased two books from them, Now You're Talking! All You Need For Your First Amateur Radio License, and The ARRL General Class License Manual. These are intended as preparatory works for the Technician and General classes, respectively. I recommend them because they're easy and fun to read, yet they're loaded to the gills with vital information. They also contain samples of every question likely to appear on your license exam, along with their correct answers. If you read and understand the contents of these books, you will pass your written exams.

Practice The Written Exam

Your next stop should be www.qrz.com. The qrz web site gives you the opportunity to take simulated ham exams online. The computer gives you immediate feedback with regard to right and wrong, and it also keeps score. At the end, it lets you know if you would have passed a real exam.

In my case, I set aside time to visit qrz at least twice a day. I took the tests over and over again until I could practically pass them in my sleep.

How To Learn Morse Code

If you want to secure a General or Extra class license, you'll need to take and pass a 5 word-per-minute Morse code exam. This begs the question as to what's the best way to learn Morse.

First, let me tell you what NOT to do. Do NOT memorize dots and dashes. Let me repeat this: Do NOT memorize dots and dashes. A person who sees the letter "B" and thinks "-..." or "Dash-dot-dot-dot" is probably doomed to failure.

Morse code is really a language, synthetic and machine-like, but still a language. In that language, the letter "B" is a rhythmic word that sounds like this: "Dahdiditdit" The human brain contains a powerful language processor. The trick is to induce your processor to accept "Dahdididit" as it would a German or Spanish phrase.

For a Morse teaching method, I highly recommend a product called the CodeQuick method. The key to this method is the association of English word phrases with the rhythmic patterns of Morse characters. Association helps get your speech processor accustomed to the strangeness and novelty of the Morse sound, and to process it as though the characters were spoken to you.

For example, CodeQuick teaches the letter "D" with the phrase "dog-did-it." My CodeQuick set came with a set of flash cards, one for each letter. The "D" flash card features the image of a dog squatting to relieve himself on the ground. The artwork is horrific and the image of the dog is distasteful, but all of this helped to set into my mind the concept that the "dog-did-it."

The reason for this silliness is that the letter "D" in Morse is transmitted with a long tone followed by two short ones. It sounds like: "Dah-di-dit." By associating "dog-did-it" with the "dah-di-dit" sound through practice, you get to the point where anytime you hear that pattern, the dog appears in your mind's eye.

The neat thing about this process is that with practice, you can receive characters at a rate so fast that you could not possibly have counted the dots or dashes. Your brain's speech processor decodes the sound for you, and the correct letter pops into your mind.

CodeQuick products are effective, but seem a little bit pricey to me. I was able to locate and purchase a used set of training tapes and flash cards for half the price of a new set. You might try looking at eBay, or networking with your friends. Chances are, somebody knows a ham who doesn't need his CodeQuick tapes anymore. Bottom line though, even if you pay full price for them, they're worth it.

Preparing For Your Morse Test

The CodeQuick method will teach you Morse, no doubt about it. However, you need practice to become proficient. This means that you need to listen to a lot of code so that you can develop an ear for it.

In the old days, people who wanted to learn Morse involved their buddies, or a willing spouse. That way, the pair could take turns sending and receiving to each other. Those without that option have resorted to practice cassettes, records, and mechanical senders programmed with punched paper tape. In recent years, tons of computer software has appeared to turn your desktop computer into a practice sending station.

I found a shareware copy of a really neat program called NuMorse. Numorse has numerous features and functions, though the one I like best is its ability to read any text file you give it, and to transmit it as Morse code through your computer's speakers.

One way I liked to practice Morse was to visit interesting Web sites with unusual stories. I would copy and paste the Web site text into a file (without reading it) and then feed the file to NuMorse. Then, I'd listen and write down the story as it was sent to me. This can help you enhance your familiarity with the alphabet, punctuation, and numeric digits, and it's fun.

There's a pitfall to this approach if you rely on it too much. For example, suppose you're receiving text from a gardening article and you see "w-a-t-e-r-m..." Your brain instantly knows that the word being sent is "watermelon" even though you haven't received the rest of the characters yet. At that point, you may hear the remaining characters transmitted, but you're really not exercising your ability to translate, because you already know what's coming.

In real Morse traffic, you will receive call signs consisting of unrelated digits and numbers. You may receive abbreviations for words, or even Q-codes. In this case, you can't deduce the full phrase on the basis of the first few letters. You have to be able to receive all of the characters accurately. For this reason, I recommend that you practice with sample Morse messages, or QSO's.

I scoured the net and found two files posted on a ham's website, morse1.zip and morse2.zip. These are compressed text files containing hundreds of sample QSO's. I fed these files to Numorse, and spent 25 minutes a day copying down code. After a few weeks of this, I was able to copy at around 10 words per minute. (The test only requires 5.) (BTW...The links to these zip files are my copies. I wanted to link to the Web site they came from, but I can't find it anymore.)

Once you're on your way, you should probably become familiar with sending Morse code. I picked up a J-38 key on eBay and wired it in series with a battery and a Sonalert (solid state buzzer). I spent about 10 to 15 minutes a day sending messages in Morse. What do you send? Try this: Pick up the phone bill and tap out everything you read there. Pick up the newspaper and key one of the articles.

One of my favorite exercises is to put on CNN or FoxNews. These stations use text banners that scroll across the bottom of the screen. While you're watching, try to tap out the first letter or numeric digit of every word that rolls by.

How Do You Know My Advice Is Any Good?

When I set out to take the exam, my goal was simply to pass the Technician test. I figured with that under my belt, I'd study for another month and head back to take the General. I planned on returning a third time to pick up the Morse requirement. I showed up at the testing site a little nervous, but fairly confident knowing that I'd worked hard to prepare. I took the Technician test, and smoked it.

The VE (volunteer examiner) suggested I try the General test. I told him that I was not yet prepared, but he urged me on, anyway. "Consider it practice," he said. I took the General, and passed it!

Next, I took the Morse test. Another VE passed out paper and pencils, and inserted a cassette tape into his player. I got about a minute of code just to warm up and to become used to the sound, and the test commenced. The message came in the form of a QSO. The exam consisted of a questionnaire. What was the call sign of the sender? The receiver? What city was he located in? What was he using for an antenna? I aced that test.

Now, the VE suggested I take the Extra. I declined. I'd heard it was very difficult. "I may just embarrass myself," I said. His answer..."Consider it practice." I took that exam and passed it!

It was a triple play! In two hours on a Saturday morning, I'd gone from no license to a full blown Extra! So, how do you know my advice is any good? One word: AC7ZL. It means that if I can do it, you can too!

Document Revision 1,  xx/xx/2003

Document Revision 2, 08/04/2006