A Brief History of Amateur Radio
Experimentation in what was to become a new field called “radio” started around 1888 when Heinrich Rudolph Hertz proved the existence of electro-magnetic waves. In the 1890’s Italian inventor Marconi developed a communications system based on “Hertzian Waves”. The term “radio” came along later. Many amateur wire telegraphers started experimenting with wireless communications.
The word “radio” was coined by Edouard Branly, a French Physicist in the year 1897. The word is based on the verb to radiate. The word “radio” appeared in a 1907 article by Lee De Forest. The United States Navy adopted the term “radio”, in 1912. The word became popular in the 1920s in the United States.
By 1910, there were many instances of harmful interference by unlicensed experimenters with governmental and commercial operations. In 1910, Congress passed the Wireless Ship Act, which required many ships to carry wireless equipment and operators.
In 1912, Congress passed the Radio Act of 1912, which restricted experimentation in the medium and long wave bands, and relegated experiments to the short wave bands. Licensing procedures were set up for all users of radio. Licenses were initially controlled by the Department of Navy. Later, the license issue was transferred to Department Commerce & Labor. There were two classes of amateur licenses issued; First Grade, and Second Grade. An Unlimited Endorsement was later available to First Grade operators.
In 1914 through 1916 in WW1, licensed amateur operators were required to cease operating, and dismantle their equipment.
In 1915, the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) was established to further the interests of amateur radio operators. Hiram Percy Maxim was the first president of the ARRL. ARRL remains the largest advocacy organization for Amateurs in the United States.
In 1923, regulators added the Amateur Extra First Grade license, again with Unlimited Endorsements available.
In 1927, Congress passed the Radio Act of 1927, which created the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), under the Department of Commerce. Licensing responsibility was transferred to the FRC.
In 1934, Congress passed the Communications Act of 1934, which created the Federal Communications Commission. Licensing responsibility was transferred to the FCC.
Under the FCC, Amateur licensing was reorganized to three classes of licensees. Class “A”, “B”, and “C”:
Class “A” licenses were awarded to First Class Licensees with Unlimited Endorsements (including Amateur Extra First Class licensees with Unlimited Endorsements).
Class “B” licenses were awarded to First Class Licensees without Unlimited Endorsements (including Amateur Extra First Class licensees without Unlimited Endorsements).
Class “C” licenses were awarded to Second Class Licensees. The Class “C” license was awarded to operators who took their license exam at ‘another than a location than an FCC office’. Class “C” licenses could be upgraded to Class “A” or “B” by taking a license upgrade exam at an FCC office. Class “C” licenses carried the same operating privileges as Class “B” licenses.
During WWII, Amateurs were once again prohibited from operating. The ban was lifted during 1946.
In 1947, the FCC removed the portion 27.00 MHz – 30.00 MHz from the Amateur 10 meter band, to reallocate to other services.
In the 1950’s amateurs were experimenting with Single Sideband (SSB) communications.
In 1951, the FCC reorganized the Amateur licensing structure, called Incentive Licensing.
There were six classes of license that an Amateur could hold; Novice, Technician, General, Conditional, Advanced, and Amateur Extra:
The FCC created the Novice Class license as the entry level license, with a 5 wpm code requirement (Element 1A) and a written test (Element 2). The Novice Class had CW operating privileges in the HF bands. Originally, the Novice Class license was issued for a term of one year, and could not be renewed (you had to upgrade, or lose your privileges), later raised to five years (renewable), and eventually to the current renewable ten year license term.
The FCC created the Technician Class license, with a more difficult written test (Element 3), which added all operating privileges in the bands above 30 MHz. Operators were required to possess a Novice Class license as prerequisite, to test for this license. This license was issued for a five years (renewable), and eventually to the current renewable ten year license term. In 1987, the FCC replaced the (Element 3) exam with the (Element 2) exam as a requirement to hold this license. In 1991, the FCC created the current No-Code Technician Class license. During 1994, the FCC started referring to Technician Class licensees, who also possessed a Novice Class license (and therefore had HF privileges), as Technician Plus licensees.
The FCC created the General Class license, with the same (Element 3) exam as the Technician Class license, and with a requirement to pass Element 1B, a 13 wpm code test. Existing Class “B” operators were converted this class of license. This license was issued for a five year term (renewable), and eventually to the current renewable ten year license term.
The FCC created the Conditional Class license. Existing Class ”C” licensees were awarded this license. The Conditional Class could be converted to a General Class license, by taking an upgrade examination at an FCC office. In 1978, the FCC eliminated this class of license, and all existing licensees were converted into General Class licensees. This license was issued for a five year term (renewable).
The FCC created the Advanced Class license. The requirements to hold this license were to hold a General Class license, and pass the Element 4A exam. Existing Class “A” were converted to this license class. This license was issued for a five year term (renewable), and eventually to the current renewable ten year license term.
The FCC created the Amateur Extra Class license. The requirements to hold this license were to hold an Advanced Class license, and pass the Element 4B exam and pass Element 1C, a code test at 20 wpm. This license was issued for a five year term (renewable), and eventually to the current renewable ten year license term.
In 1982, Congress passed Public Law 97-259 which amended the Communications Act of 1934. In 1984, the FCC authorized the current volunteer examiner system.
In 1987, the FCC changed the requirements for several license classes. (See comments above.)
In 1991, the ITU proposed to eliminate the Morse Code requirement to hold a domestic Amateur Radio license. It still would be required for license classes with international privileges.
In 2000, the FCC reduced the number of license classes that could be newly earned to the current Technician Class, General Class, and Amateur Extra Class licenses. The legacy licenses, Novice, and Advanced, could be renewed, but no new licenses could be earned. The FCC created the current (No-Code) Technician Class license. Licensees who earned their Technician Class license before 1987 were awarded Tech (Plus) licenses, with operating privileges of both Novice and Technician Class licensees. The Morse Code requirement for all licenses was reduced to 5 wpm. Licensees who held a current Technician issued before March 21, 1987, could apply at a VE session, to have their current license upgraded to General. The license term was increased to the current ten year license term.
In 2003, the ITU eliminated the Morse Code requirement to hold any Amateur Radio license.
On February 23, 2007, the FCC eliminated the Morse Code requirement for all US issued amateur licenses.
Technician Class licensees gained CW operating privileges in the ‘Novice Bands’ HF bands. Novice Class licensees gained all operating privileges in the bands above 30 MHz.
In 2014, the FCC, ruled that some expired licensees could be granted certain credits for their former licensed status.
Compiled by Randy Jenkins, KA6BQF