Saturday, January 31, 2009

My Novice Story

Seeing a link to the Novice Historical Society, I thought I would write my own Novice Story.

My start in radio was pretty conventional. If you have ever read So You Want To Be A Ham, the conventional entry in amateur radio comes after being a short-wave listener (SWL). You encounter other hams talking on the air, and eventually discover you can do more than just listen. Up until the widespread adoption of SSB, this was perhaps the most popular technique for discovering amateur radio.

I got started through my brother Ben (now NJ8J). Ben is five years older than I, and my mother always joked that I wanted to do everything he did. (And she was surprised when I often could) Christmas 1969 found us with our grandparents, and my Uncle Frank didn't know what to give us boys. He ended up getting Ben a Radio Shack Science Fair Globe Patrol receiver. This was a three transistor regenerative receiver, with AM broadcast and short wave bands. Frank, Ben and Dad built it, and my Grandfather had to step in and troubleshoot it (one reverse connected diode was enough to keep it from working).

Unfortunately for Frank, that was to be his last Christmas, he die tragically in April 1970, just short of age 25. But that little radio started something for both of us. Next Christmas, our parents bought us each Heathkit short-wave radios. Ben received a GR-64, and I a GR-81. We quickly became avid radio listeners.

The GR-81 wasn't that great on short-wave, so I initially concentrated a lot of AM broadcast DXing. (Best DX was WOAI in San Antonio, TX from Fairmont, WV) Ben took to listening to more short-wave broadcast, and he quickly found the ham bands as well. Ben had learned morse code in scouts, so he was "reading the mail" on the CW bands as well.

I had tried to learn morse, and about age 14, I had convinced myself that I was just one of those people who were incapable of mastering it. Then something amazing happened. Ben got his Novice license in February 1975. Of course, I always had to do everything he did, so naturally, I started to learn the code again. I bought and built a Heathkit HR-10B, and I began to practice by listening to W1AW and the Novice bands. By November 1975, I passed my Novice license, and was WN8WOY.

Getting licensed was one trick, actually getting on the air was another. By this time, I had realised that the HR-10B was not a great receiver for CW work -- the IF response was just too wide. Using money from my paper route, I bought a used Heathkit SB-301. The difference between the two receivers was amazing. You really could listen to just one signal -- especially after I bought the 400 Hz CW crystal filter.

The SB-301 kinda broke my budget for a few months, so it wasn't until June 1976 that I could afford a transmitter, in the form of a used Heathkit SB-401. Thus, I had the matching pair of Heathkit SB-series twins. Novices were no longer limited to crystal control, so the SB-401 wasn't a bad choice.

One problem being a Novice in those days -- you were limited to 75 watts power input to the final amplifier. The SB-401 could do about 180 watts, so I removed one tube and operated that way. During that summer, the FCC changed the rules to allow Novices up to 200 watts PEP output. Of course, I didn't find out about this until the fall. The FCC also decide to drop the distinctive Novice callsigns, so in the fall of 1976, I was now WB8WOY.

The summer of 1976, I did a fair amount of operating -- a handful of contacts every day. Mostly 40m, some 80m, and a few 15m. My antenna at first was a 40m inverted-V that was mounted on standoffs just underneath the eves of the house. The ends were within about a couple of feet of the ground, so this antenna really didn't work well. I also build a small L-network tuner for the long-wire I used for SWLing for use on 80m. It didn't work well, either. 

The Novice bands in the 1970s and even 80s were very different from today. Today, most evenings you could tune the CW bands and fail to hear more than a few CW QSOs, and none of them at slow speed. (Of course, if there's a contest or DXpedition active on a weekend, you'll hear lots of activity) Then, the Novice bands were a hotbed of activity, with slow speed QSOs going on all the time, every day.

In a year and a half on the air, before my Novice license expired, I made about 210 QSOs. That experience made a lasting impression on me. When I got my General class license in the summer of 1979, I often found myself operating in the Novice bands. 


  1. A bit of fill-in background (I'm NJ8J, Bill's brother). It actually started a couple of years before the Globe Patrol receiver kit, before we had moved from New Jersey to West Virginia. Mom went to the public library and took me with her. I spotted So You Want To Be A Ham on display, and checked it out. I have no idea what prompted me to check it out, but I was immediately hooked.

    After we moved to WV, (due to some bullying on the bus) I tended to walk home from Junior High instead of taking the bus home. My route home went right by a Lafayette Radio Electronics store. I took to ducking in there often. They had copies of So You Want To Be a Ham for sale, and I bought one, and spent many an evening rereading it and drooling over the radio pictures in it. I also started regularly buying 73 magazine at the Lafayette store.

    I barely remember getting a morse code merit badge in Scouts, but I'm pretty sure it was the previous exposure to ham radio via SYWTBAH\ that prompted me to learn morse. Being able to apply it to a scout badge was just icing on the cake.

    It took me a few years to get up the gumption to get my Novice ticket (which spurred Bill). At the time, I was a poor college student, and Bill was in high school with a paper route, so he ended up getting ahead of me equipment-wise. I had no qualms, however, about borrowing his gear when home on summer vacation (particularly given that we shared an attic bedroom).

    We did do some strange things with antennas. Our most infamous was probably the "15M slinky vertical". We took a copper Slinky, figured out about how many turns it would take to have 1/4 wave of wire on 15M, and stretched it between the bedpost at the foot of my bed and a hook in the ceiling. We matched it by tapping it up a few turns, and adding a series variable capacitor. It actually loaded, but we never made a contact on it that I remember. I've never run NEC on it, but we would joke that the major lobe was probably near-vertical, making it suitable only for 15M moonbounce, should the moon actually decide to place itself in the proper spot just above our house.

  2. Ah, the 15m vertical. I remember this. It used the bedsprings from a twin bed as the ground plane for the vertical. It used a conventional steel slinky, although it was inspired by the copper-clad slinky dipole of the day.

    I actually made a contact or two on this antenna, back in 1976-77. It didn't work well, but then, most of our antennas didn't work well, since we didn't know what we were doing.

    Ben was certainly an unusual Novice. He'd been SWLing the ham CW bands for a long time, and could copy well over 15 wpm by the time he took the Novice test.

    CW proficiency was the rule of the day. By the time I got on the air, I was copying around 13 wpm.

  3. This brings back memories of the Novice bands in the late 70s. I got licensed in 77. My dad was an ex navy radio operator from WWII and tautht me the code. I rememver him tapping out cw and me trying to copy it. After I got my Novice dad bought me an FT-101 and a vertical. Both of which I still have. I eventually made my way to General. Over the years I have gone in and out of ham radio. College marrage family and work have made changes in my life but radio has always been there active or not. I am not back into it, amazed at what is offered with DSP and the same old bands. I miss the Novice days but everything has to change. I must say it is a great hobby.

  4. Great article. My first radio experience began with a friend receiving the chassis and speaker out of an old Zenith console. We were given 30 feet of magnet wire to use as an antenna. I remember my friend and I spending the better part of an hour scraping the mysterious coating off of the wire. We thought that the coating would keep the radio signals from reaching the copper wire!! Pretty funny eh!! That was the beginning. Another friend had moved to the neighborhood and invited me over to his house one day after school. We passed through an unfinished room in the basement which had a very long workbench in it covered with all kinds of radio gear. He told me to come by some night and see his dad operate his ham radio station. After one night of watching the almost mesmorizing glow of the tubes and the sounds of distant voices come through the speaker, I was hooked. With the help of my good friend Tom, I managed to master the 5 wpm code and received my novice license WN7STS in the winter of 1971. I still miss the novice bands as well. I love CW!!!!!

  5. A 4 or 5 band trap vertical, which for some reason I called it a dipole a few times when sending CW. WN2GFC in summer of 76, then WB2GFC ever since. Dad was an electronics technician, and very kind to me in buying me radios. I operated 40m Novice band with a Heathkit DX-60 and HG-10 VFO, with a Drake 2B receiver. I still have the straight key and the code oscillator. Kicking myself for selling the 2B, but such is life.

  6. Great must've been great to have had parental interest and WA5CVI

  7. Excellent story! 73 es gud DX! KC5NGX

    1. KC5NGX - thank you. But, you didn't have to say it three times. I hope you don't mind that I deleted the duplicates.

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