by John Cunningham, W1AI
Zero to Extra the hard way (back when dirt was new)ǃ
I got into ham radio the hard way, which was the only way to do it back in the '70s, in the era before home computers and the internet. Back in High School, I attended a free class offered by hams from the Raleigh Amateur Radio Society (RARS), where I learned Morse Code at 5 words per minute and enough about the regulations to pass the simple Novice exam. After I got my brand new call sign, WN4EKG, my Dad helped me build a Heathkit HW-101 transceiver and put up a folded dipole antenna. A lot of hams built radios from kits back then.
The only privileges the Novice class license gave me was Morse Code on a few HF bands, so I spent the next year making hundreds of contacts and improving my code speed. Once I was reliably copying above 13 words per minute, I spent a couple of months diligently studying the license manuals, then made the trek (185 miles each way) to the nearest FCC Field Office. (Back then, volunteer examiners were only allowed to administer the Novice exam. For everything else, you had do travel to one of the 16 FCC Field Offices scattered around the country. I was fortunate to live so close to an FCC Field Office, as many hams had to travel much further!)
After a year of preparation, in a single morning, I passed the 13 words per minute Morse Code test, and the General and Advanced written exams, earning my Advanced class license. The FCC upgraded my call sign to WA4EKG.
That was basically the way everybody got into ham radio back then — hundreds of hours practicing Morse Code and dozens of hours overstudying the license manuals. When you're driving 4 hours (each way) on a maze of unfamiar roads, before the invention of GPS, using only a paper map for a guide, you want to be really sure you're going to pass the exams! Since there was no software with intelligent repetition to teach you the materials, no practice exams to confirm that you're ready, and you can only imagine how intimidating it is to take exams in front of the FCC Examiner, you really studied hard!
Then I went off to college. I started off as a Chemistry major, but eventually decided that was a stinky career choice. (Literally, if I never smell hydrogen sulfide again, it will be too soon!) Since I had enjoyed studying electronics to get my Advanced license, I switched into Electrical Engineering for a while. In the end, I discovered that my true calling was writing software, and I'm still loving it 50 years later!
After college, I got my code speed above 20 words per minute, hit the books, headed back to the FCC Field Office, got my Extra, and finally got a 4-character call sign, KC4J (“Kiss Chickens For Jollies”). In total, it took me 6 years and maybe 1,000 hours of code practice and study to go from Zero to Extra. The code was at least 90% of the effort.
Today, mostly because the FCC dropped the Morse code requirement, HamTestOnline™ students often go from Zero to Extra in a month or two. You kids have it so easy today... all uphill, both ways, in knee-deep snow...
After several more years of ham radio fun, it was the old story. I met a girl, started focusing on family and career, and eventually let my ham radio license expire.
Fast forward to 2002. One day I'm out running in a park, and see a sign saying that radio operators are giving demos in a field. I went over to check it out, and discovered that it was the ARRL Field Day, one of my favorite ham radio activities. They let me operate their GOTA (“Get on the Air”) station on SSB (my Morse was too rusty), and I was hooked again. It didn't take long to get my code speed up to 5 words per minute, which was all that was required for an Extra class license in 2002. I loaded the question pools into some adaptive learning software that I had developed a few years earlier, drilled the questions until I knew all the answers, then passed the Morse code, Tech, General, and Extra exams, earning back my Extra class license in a single session.
The FCC gave me AB1BK (my “Burger King” call), which I later changed to W1AI (“Whiskey One Artificial Intelligence”). I think I'll keep this call sign for the rest of my life!
By the way, I was very successful on the exams the second time around. I got 5 minutes of perfect copy on the Morse test, perfect scores on the Tech and General, and only missed 1 on the Extra. I asked the volunteer examiners if I could retake the Extra exam, as I really wanted to achieve a perfect score, but they just laughed at me. (Some people think I might be OCD, but they are wrong. I'm actually CDO, which is OCD which has been put into its proper alphabetical order!)
A friend pointed out that my software seemed to work really well, suggested that I make it available on the web and sell subscriptions, and thus HamTestOnline™ was born. Over the past 21 years, it's helped students pass more than 100,000 ham radio exams, usually with high scores. And think, it's all because a few hams took the time to help a bunch of High School students get their Novice licenses, and other hams took the time to put up a sign and give radio demos in the park. So, thank you RARS, my Dad, K1RV, and so many others who have helped and encouraged me through the years in this grand ham radio adventure. My life would not have been the same without you!