The History Of Amateur Radio

This portion of my website was prepared with the help of Bill Continelli, W2XOY. Bill has prepared several articles in a series he calls "The Wayback Machine", in the hope to expand the knowledge of fellow hams, about Amateur Radio's unique and unchallenged history.

THE WAYBACK MACHINE #13    by Bill Continelli, W2XOY

Mention November 22 to many people in the US, and they will immediately associate it with the date that President John F Kennedy was assassinated. But for amateur radio operators, especially those licensed for more than 30 years, it means something totally different: INCENTIVE LICENSING. In a three- stage process starting on November 22, 1967, and ending on November 22, 1969, the FCC instituted "incentive licensing," ostensibly designed to encourage amateurs to upgrade, but in reality a process under which most amateurs lost up to 50% of the frequencies they usually operated. Incentive licensing (or incentive punishment as some have called it) has been blamed for the demise of many American amateur radio equipment manufacturers such as Hammarlund and Hallicrafters, a temporary decline in the number of licensed hams, and bitter feelings against the ARRL and FCC that last to this day. As we approach the 30th anniversary of incentive Licensing, let's take a look at the events that led up to this controversial decision. In order to do so, we must go back to 1951.

Prior to 1951, a rather simple license structure existed in this country. Amateurs had a Class A, Class B or Class C license.

Class A conveyed all amateur privileges on all frequencies, including exclusive access to the 75 and 20 meter phone bands. Class A required passing a comprehensive theory exam, and a 13 WPM CW test, which included sending as well as receiving.

Class B conveyed all CW privileges on all bands, and allowed phone operation on 160, 11 and ten meters in the HF spectrum, and on all VHF/UHF frequencies. Note that 75 and 20 phone operation was limited to Class A hams. What about 40 and 15 meters? Well, 40 at that time was CW only. And as for 21 Mc, It wasn't a ham band back then! 15 meters was given to us in 1947 in exchange for the 14.35-14.40 mc segment of 20 meters, but the 15 meter band actually wasn't available to hams until 1952. In addition, 160 meter access was severely restricted at that time because of LORAN Radionavigation and 11 meters was a secondary US only allocation, with limited popularity, so the Class B ham who wanted HF phone action went to ten meters by default. Class B hams passed the same 13 WPM code test as Class A, but a less comprehensive written test.

Class C gave the exact same privileges as Class B, but the exam was given by mail, under the supervision of a Class B (or higher) license, to those who couldn't walk the 175 miles (uphill both ways through the snow!) to a quarterly FCC examination point.

In 1951, the FCC reorganized the entire license structure. Class A was replaced by the Advanced, Class B by the General, and Class C by the Conditional. Three new licenses were created at that time, the Extra, Technician and Novice. The Extra (actually "Amateur Extra") had a 20 WPM code requirement and a written exam more difficult than the old Class A. In order to qualify for the Extra, one needed to be licensed as a Class B or General for at least two years, in addition to passing the test. However, if you held a Class B, or General license (or higher), and you were licensed prior to April, 1917, you could get an Extra with no additional test. Technicians had to pass the General theory and a five WPM CW test. They had privileges above 220 Mc only. Novices had a basic 20 question written exam, the five WPM code test, and limited CW privileges on 80, 11 and two meters, as well as voice privileges on two meters. This was a one-year, non-renewable license. The Advanced was available until December 31, 1952, for upgrades/new licenses, at which time it was withdrawn from availability. Those holding Advanced class licenses could continue to renew, but no new licenses were issued. In 1952-53, the FCC also dropped a couple of other surprises -- phone operation was allowed for the first time on 40 meters, 15 meters was finally opened, the 14.35-14.4 Mc segment of 20 meters was removed from the amateur service, and, in the biggest bombshell of them all, Generals (former Class B) and Conditionals (former Class C) were given access to all former exclusive Class A phone frequencies. Now, Conditional, General, Advanced and Extra Class operators had the exact on-the-air privileges. During the 1950s, Novices were given 40 and 15 meter CW privileges in addition to their 80 meter segment and 11 meters was removed. Technicians got six meters in 1955 and the 145-147 Mc segment of two meters in 1959. Technicians could also hold a Novice class license simultaneously.

Many amateurs were unhappy with this structure. Extras complained that they had to go through a two year waiting period as a General or Advanced, had to pass a difficult test, and yet received no exclusive frequencies for their efforts. Advanced class amateurs were upset with the "limbo" status of their licenses, the fact that they no longer held the highest class license, and the fact that they no longer had exclusive use of 75 and 20 meter phone. General, Advanced and Extra class amateurs complained that Novices should not have been given 15 meter CW. The General, Advanced and Extra class hams were also opposed to increasing Technician class privileges, for reasons we will see in our next installment.

In summary, although the vast number of hams were satisfied, a small minority had complaints. And the ARRL listened. In 1963, acting on complaints they claim they received from members and operators in other countries, the ARRL proposed "Incentive Licensing." In an editorial, the ARRL implied that perhaps it was a mistake when the Class B and Generals were given the 75 and 20 meter phone segments. The ARRL's stand was now clear. Exclusive frequencies must be restored to the Advanced and Extra class amateurs in order to give the Generals an "incentive" to upgrade. Of course, what was left unsaid was that in order to do so, frequencies would have to be taken away from the General class hams.

What was the ARRL's original proposal? How did hams react to it? What was the controversy about the Technician class license that was dragged to the forefront in this battle? Be on board "The Wayback Machine" next time for the answers!

Copyright 1996, 2001, 2005 by William Continelli, W2XOY

All rights reserved.

These columns were originally written for the Schenectady Museum Amateur Radio Club.