The Dreaded Black Code Machine
PUBLISHED BY: EHAM.NET | May 17, 2004 | ARTICLE# 8396

Before I begin my true story of how I got my ham license. There must be an explanation of what "The Dreaded Black Code Machine" was! The old timers will remember what it was, but the newbies won't know what I'm talking about.

ATKO Mini Keyer Ad (1965 ARRL Radio Amateur Handbook)
Photo Courtesy of Dave N4MW |

It was a small black box about 2x4 that the FCC used at that time (1969) to administer C.W. exams. It had a built in code oscillator and the capability of powering 25 pair of headphones. It only had one reel, and when the paper tape was started it would unwind on the floor.

For 32 years I have often wondered what kind of code machine this was, until recently I did a search on the web and found out it was an "Atko Minikeyer Model 10A" So this was" The Dreaded Black Code Machine." All the while it was in an advertisement in an old hand book from 1967.

The very first time I heard a short wave radio was in 1948, I was 9 years old, it was a new Sky Buddy Hallicrafters receiver, and boy was it pretty. -- All black and shiny, with the orange backed main tuning dial and S meter. It was as pretty as anything I had ever seen. Although I was somewhat disappointed, I could look, listen, but not touch.

ATKO Mini Keyer Model 10F
Photo Courtesy of Dave N4MW |

My second encounter with Ham radio was a pile of old radio magazines given to me by an uncle. There were a few QSTs, CQs, and several large radio distributor catalogs among them. I read them over and over wishing I could build or buy something from them.

I did manage to save enough money to buy a Philmore crystal set, and set about getting permission to erect an antenna on my father's house. Not knowing exactly what to do I put up a wire about 50 feet long between two insulators the length of the roof, drove a ground rod, hooked all this to my crystal set, and proceeded with great excitement to tweak the cat whisker across the Galena crystal. The results were very good, and I was amazed you could here Radio signals without batteries, tubes, and a whole bunch of wires.

The real shock came one evening when I herd a man giving strange call letters. He said he was Al W5OVV in Baton Rouge and that's where I lived. I knew I had to find where this was coming from. As luck would have it Al lived only 2 blocks away, I found out because Al lived back-to-back to a good friend I played with.

Sitting there in Al's back yard was a small neat little shack. While visiting my friend I would try to look in the dark window by cupping my hands to get a glimpse inside, and in amazement I was thinking this must be all the radio equipment in the world.

Hallicrafters 1940 version of the Sky Buddy Model S-19R
Photo Courtesy of Western Historic Radio Museum
Henry Rogers W7HTR and Sharon Rogers KK7EI |


Then came the day when the lights were on and I could see someone inside.


I timidly approached the door, and there he was a ham in action. He was busy adjusting knobs and talking into a mic, while I stood there bug eyed with my mouth wide open looking at the racks of shiny equipment lining one side of the wall and a nice console where he sat talking. He finally noticed me, introduced himself and invited me in.


I was so taken in by it all I don't think he could make sense out of my babbled name. Here I sat in radio heaven. Not only did I see a real live ham in action, talking to another ham many miles away, but I had my name mentioned on the air as a visitor to the shack.


If that was not enough, Al pointed the mic at me and at that moment it was as if someone had pointed a gun at me. I numbly remember Al telling me to say something and I believe I mumbled a few words.


When Al took back the mic I thanked him mumbled I would be back again. I don't remember walking home and to this day I don't know who I talked to or what I said. I went to his shack many times after that and enjoyed watching him operate his radios.




Not long after this my aunt gave me an old radio with all the short wave bands. The radio was like a pot of gold. I went to her house picked it up and could not wait to return home to put it in my shack.


My shack was a cubbyhole on the back porch. It held my father's garden tools and just about every thing else you could fit in there.



There was a small shelf to hold the new short wave radio with the antenna and ground wire running to it now and the crystal set pushed aside. I spent many enjoyable hours listening to all kinds of foreign broadcasts and yes there were the hams. Talking about their rigs and I listened and learned what ham radio was all about.

Well it was a short-lived hobby. After a month or so the old radio went on the blink. Here is a kid that knows nothing about the insides of that big box, especially when the back cover says: CAUTION DO NOT REMOVE BACK COVER RETURN TO DEALER FOR SERVICE.

I just had to take the darn thing out of the cabinet. How was I supposed to know you weren't to poke around inside with a screwdriver with your hand on the metal parts? The first real electric shock zapped me. I threw down the screwdriver because I thought it was going to get me again. Fortunately I did not get hurt and found out later from a friend it was only a bad tube.

At that time I knew very little about electronics. I still wanted to be a ham. I wanted my license so bad I would sit in my shack for hour's day dreaming how it would be to call my first CQ.

As time went by I did learn a little about electronics, and got my hands on a popular WWII carbon hand mic. If some one had offered me a million bucks for it, I would have said no. I finally got up the nerve to start poking around the inside of the old radio again. I found out I could hook up my prized mike to the local oscillator. You could transmit to another radio a couple feet away. I would sit and call CQ until I was blue in the face pretending I was talking to all kind of exotic DX.

Once while listening around the 75-meter band I herd my friend talking to some one, by that time I knew what break meant. I picked up my mike and started shouting break. I'm sure I was not getting out more than a few feet on the local oscillator?


There must have been a breaking station at that exact moment because my friend said go breaker. I thought he was talking to me. I got scared. I knew from reading you had to have a license to transmit or the FCC would do some very bad things to you (whoever they were) like put you in jail and make you pay large sums of money to them.


With all these thoughts running through my head, I threw down my prized mic on the floor, shut every thing down and ran into the house, for surly the FCC would be here any second to lock me up. My mother asked why I was so pale and I said oh! nothing and went to sleep that night dreaming the FCC had caught me ha! ha!. After a few days had gone by I figured I could start playing with the radio again and they were not coming.

Wells-Gardner Co. (National Design)† -† RAO-3
Photo Courtesy of Western Historic Radio Museum
Henry Rogers W7HTR and Sharon Rogers KK7EI |

My first real short wave receiver was an old navy surplus National that weighed about 60 pounds. I saved every nickel and dime I could get my hands on and paid $35.00. That was a lot of money then.


By this time the radio bug had bitten hard. My friend Al tried to help me with the code but I liked listening to my heroes on 75 meters and it was more fun listening to them than all the racket that CW made. I was getting older then about 13 and my interest waned from ham radio to girls. I eventually quit going to my friend's house and ham radio had to take a back seat until some 17 years later.

Just how and when I don't remember my Elmer came into my life. He was the most patient and understanding man I had the pleasure of knowing. Mr. Jack Shelton W5IQM (SK).

By this time I was 26 years old, married, and serious about getting my ticket. My Elmer guided me and helped me with the theory and code (which I had a terrible time with). After about 2 months of hard study, he gave me the Novice test after six weeks I received the cherished letter from the FCC with WN5TCZ printed on the license.


After a year of CW on the Novice bands, I found myself off the air and no "N" dropped from my call. About a month before my novice license expired I went to New Orleans to try and take the General test. No one back then could give tests but the FCC engineer, and we had to go to New Orleans to take the test. It is about 80 miles from Baton Rouge, La.

I walked in to the FCC office to take the general test and there it was - "THE DREADED BLACK CODE MACHINE".

I took the general test, passed the written, but failed the code part. However on this first try I got my Technicians license, 5 wpm and came back feeling good and bad at the same time. There was not much you could back then with a technician's license, if you were not a VHF or UHF person. So it was back to the Old Instructograph machine and the records.


My second trip to the FCC ended in utter chaos. I got lost in New Orleans, and if your not there at 8 AM sharp you miss the code test and they usually won't give it again. Not knowing this (old dummy here) bounced into the room and the examining engineer asked what I wanted. I replied cheerfully I want to take the general code and theory test.


He looked at me unbelieving, shook his head and with a scowl said, I have already given the code test. I mustered all my nerve and blurred out I had driven all the way from Baton Rouge.


He stood looking at me for a few seconds, that shook me up and made me nervous. To make matters worse there were about 25 people seated and they too were all looking at me. This did not help my nervous situation at all.

He reluctantly turned to a large metal cabinet and picked up "The Dreaded Black Code Machine." Then he picked up those 25 pair of head phones that must have known I was coming in late they were tangled worse than a back lash in a cheep fishing reel.


He mumbled something under his breath that I did not want to hear, and for the next 5 minutes proceeded to extract just one pair from the entangled mess. He then turned and instructed me to fill out my forms. He led me to his office, sat me at his desk all the while barking out instructions, sit down, here's your pencils, take this paper. Are you ready? By then I was so nervous I did not know where I was.

He started "The Dreaded Black Code Machine." I picked up the pencil and that is as far as my mind would let me go. I made no marks of any kind on the paper before me. After the tape ran out he came back into his office, took the paper looked at it, looked at me, shook his head slowly, turned without a word and walked out the room.


I sat there my mind was racing 100 MPH. How will I ever have the courage to come back here and face that man. I got over it and came back for the third, then fourth, and finally fifth and last time.

At that time there was a $4.00 charge for a 5-year license. I had paid the equivalent of $20.00 bucks and enough for 25 years of license. They also knew me on a first name basis.


Fifth and final trip to New Orleans FCC Office


I usually went to New Orleans with my wife, but on that day she had to attend a play at school. Not wanting to ride down there alone I asked my mother to go along with me.

I would not have passed the fifth time, had it not been for tranquilizers prescribed by my doctor to quite my nerves, and having my mother sitting in the waiting room praying for me.

I did it I finally beat "The Dreaded Black Code Machine!" -- The ride home was a jumble of pleasure and excitement. It also meant another anxious six weeks of waiting for WA5TCZ to arrive in the mail.


Heath Kit SB101

I got busy putting together my first rig it was a Heathkit SB101. This time I would be ready when the license came. I checked the mailbox day after day waiting patiently.


Much to my surprise when getting in from work one evening there it was on the kitchen table. I picked it up rushed out to my shack, and with shaking hands tuned up my rig. I was calling my first SSB CQ and was answered by a Houston station on 40 meters. I still get the same thrill every time I meet new people on the air.


The only sad part of my story, which is true to the best of my recollection, is that after many years on the air I finally got to work my friend Al and my Elmer on 2 meters. I related to them some of the amusing things I have written here and we all had a good laugh.


After many years of being on the air I had the pleasure of giving the novice test to two dear friends of mine, they are husband and wife. This thrilled and renewed my interest in CW. I was their first contact.

How long has it been since you had have a person in the shack and talked enthusiastically about ham radio? Showing him or her your rig and around the shack. You might even spur their interest by making a contact, and letting them say a few words over the air.

You might also offer to help them in any way, so that they may enjoy this great hobby off ours, and who knows maybe some day they may look back fondly over the years thinking of their Elmer and say as I did. I did it I beat "The Dreaded Black Code Machine."

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Guglielmo Marconi

Guglielmo Marconi carried out the first

short wave transmissions over a long distance.


When we think of Radio, and Short wave we think of the work of Guglielmo Marconi Born in Italy in 1874.

His work in the 1890`s led to the development of broadcast radio as we know it today.

Marconi failed to interest the Italian government of his invention.

He brought it to Great Brittan.

His first demonstration on May 11 and 12th 1896 failed.

But after raising the mast on the 13th to 50 meters the Morse signal was received clearly.

The message was “Are You Ready”.

The received message was printed on a slip of paper by his assistant Mr. Kemp and is in the National Museum in Wales.



International Radio Symbol

International Amateur Radio Symbol


Amateur radio (also called ham radio) is the use of designated radio frequency spectra for purposes of private recreation, non-commercial exchange of messages, wireless experimentation, self-training, and emergency communication.


The term "amateur" is used to specify persons interested in radio technique solely with a personal aim and without direct monetary or other similar reward, and to differentiate it from commercial broadcasting, public safety (such as police and fire), or professional two-way radio services (such as maritime, aviation, taxis, etc.).



ITU Flag

The amateur radio service (amateur service and amateur satellite service) is established by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) through the International Telecommunication Regulations.


National governments regulate technical and operational characteristics of transmissions and issue individual stations licenses with an identifying call sign.


Prospective amateur operators are tested for their understanding of key concepts in electronics and the host government's radio regulations.


Radio amateurs use a variety of voice, text, image, and data communications modes and have access to frequency allocations throughout the RF spectrum to enable communication across a city, region, country, continent, the world, or even into space.





Amateur radio is officially represented and coordinated by the International Amateur Radio Union (IARU), which is organized in three regions and has as its members the national amateur radio societies which exist in most countries.




According to an estimate made in 2011 by the American Radio Relay League, two million people throughout the world are regularly involved with amateur radio.


About 830,000 amateur radio stations are located in IARU Region 2 (the Americas) followed by IARU Region 3 (South and East Asia and the Pacific Ocean) with about 750,000 stations.


A significantly smaller number, about 400,000, are located in IARU Region 1 (Europe, Middle East, CIS, Africa).