First Class CW Operators' Club
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The club originated in the United Kingdom and is still headquartered there but has members all over the world. Membership is by invitation only and is limited to 500 worldwide. Invitees must demonstrate the ability to send and receive morse code at a minimum of 25 words per minute, demonstrate regular activity on the amateur frequency bands, and show impeccable levels of courtesy on the air.
Many FOC members are prominent in the world of DXpeditions and amateur radio contesting, or are known for their skill in chasing DX. Many, too, are interested in having long conversations using morse code, often at high speed. The Club has an active social programme and many members engage in extensive travel to meet other members in person.
This article has been written by Bob for publication in the RSGB’s RadCom magazine, on the FOCUS 76 and a shorter version for ARRL’s QST, to publicise the 70th anniversary of FOC and to recognise G8PG’s 70 years of continual membership of FOC. Gus is FOC number 11 and is the only one of the original members of FOC when it was formed in 1938, still with us.
The First Class CW Operators’ Club (FOC) and one of its founders, Gus Taylor, G8PG, celebrate the organisation’s 70th anniversary this year. Bob Jones, G3YIQ, takes a look at how the club has developed since 1938 and what it means to be a member today.
The Early Days
When Bob Webster, G5BW, and John Hunter, G2QZ, founded FOC in 1938 they could not have imagined the international fraternity that the organisation represents today. In fact, only British members were permitted during the early years of FOC. Unfortunately, both founders died very young during WW II - Bob from tuberculosis and John from pneumonia. At the outbreak of war, at which time there were some 70 members, all activities were suspended.
When the club was re-formed in 1946 by Captain A.M.H. Fergus (Fergie), G2ZC, it was open to an international membership and by the end of 1950 had over 300 members in 31 countries. The main requirements for membership were the ability to send and receive Morse code at 18 WPM and sponsorship from three existing members. Doug Borden, W1BUX, became the first US member in 1947.
One of the earliest notes on FOC’s function states that:
- “The First Class Operators’ Club came into existence with the avowed object to taking into membership any amateur transmitter who, by virtue of his ability as a telegraphist and his general attitude to amateur radio, appeared worthy to belong to an organisation the aims of which were to encourage good operating and proper use of our bands."
A small committee was responsible for identifying suitable members and inviting them to join.
Although ability as a telegraphist was the key requirement for membership, FOC was not originally devoted exclusively to CW, although it was always understood that the primary interest of members would be CW. It was not until 1967 that the name of the club was changed to "The First Class CW Operators’ Club", and so it remains.
Fraternity, not Elitism
From its earliest days, some people have misunderstood FOC’s purpose and culture. In March 1939, a letter to the RSGB’s T&R Bulletin, an early forerunner of RadCom, accused FOC members of offering, “unwanted and unauthoritative advice to experimental operators". The club was seen as a bunch of elitist operators who considered themselves a cut above the rest. This same criticism has been levelled from time-to-time throughout the club’s history, perhaps engendered in part simply by the name of the organisation.
Such a criticism could not be further from the truth. Of course, there is pride in becoming a member of a club that still has a limited membership of 500 radio amateurs worldwide, and one that requires a demonstrable standard of skill and commitment to become a member. However, the welcoming letter to new members states very prominently: “FOC is an organisation that promotes first class operating rather than a body that recognises first class operators".
FOC members fully realise that there are many, first class operators that may never become members of the club, either through lack of interest in club membership per se, or simply because their operating preferences are much narrower that those catered for by FOC. For example, those that only operate in contests are not going to find the club of interest.
In 1965, one member wrote: “FOC is more than a club; it is a way of life, a camaraderie. It is an organised effort to demonstrate that which is good for all by example. FOC means more than a clean CW operator capable of transmitting 60 WPM in Old-English characters with a six inch brush. FOC means a clean signal, willingness to QRS to 3 WPM for the struggling beginner, a helping hand for the aspirant down the street, a feeling of oneness with all who would like to see the level of amateur radio rise. FOC is not an award, it is a goal".
However, not all hams agree. Even to the present day, many hams describe the FOC as elitist, exclusivist, and contradictory to the inclusive traditions of the hobby. They point out that FOC originated in England within a few years of the origin of Mensa, a group that excludes all but those in the top percentiles of I.Q. scores. These groups appeared in the years after WW I and WW II when the British class system based upon birth alone, was being questioned, if somewhat obliquely, by the emergence of groups that distinguished themselves on the basis of merit or performance in a single narrow area.
At the time of writing, there have been nearly 2000 members since the club was formed and, as mentioned earlier, membership is limited to approximately 500 stations. Limits were originally set because of the sheer workload for the club secretary in regularly communicating with members. In practice, the normal membership level has been around 490 in recent years and the club is always striving to attract new, active members, so the limit has been no hindrance to the introduction of new members.
Amongst the past and present membership are many of the world’s top DX stations and contesters. Hardly a major DXpedition goes by without the involvement of FOC members. For example, the 20-man strong 3B7C team included no less than seven FOC members from three countries. Some members have been notable for their achievements in other fields. Austin Forsyth, G6FO, editor of Short Wave Magazine, was member number one after WW II. Louis Varney, G5RV, was number seven.
Gus Taylor G8PG
Gus Taylor, G8PG, who lives in West Kirby on the Wirrall, UK, was a founder member of FOC in 1938. He is one of the leading lights in the G-QRP Club and a founder member of the Royal Signals Amateur Radio Society (RSARS). Friends describe him as “persistent and dogged" in his enthusiasm for promoting low power communications. Gus learned Morse code in preparation for going to sea in the Merchant Navy. He worked on a weather ship in WW II, where his competence in sending and receiving code by both radio signals and light was finely honed. Gus, now 93 years old, wrote a regular feature in the G- QRP Club’s newsletter, SPRAT, for over 15 years, until last year. It was entitled Antennas, Anecdotes and Awards. He developed many QRP radios over the years and is something of an expert on antennas and tuners. However, one of his most important contributions to the world of CW was a Morse practice tape that he produced in the last 1970s - hundreds of copies of which were distributed over a period of several years. Gus exemplifies the FOC ethic - a love of CW, a commitment to help others achieve the highest operating standards and a desire to create lasting friendships with those who share a common interest in amateur radio.
Bill Windle G8VG
Although many members have made huge contributions to the running of FOC over the years, and continue to do so today, perhaps the most notable was the late Bill Windle, G8VG. Bill, member number six when the club was re-formed in 1946, was FOC Chairman from 1951 to 1968 and again from 1981 until 1983. He was also President in 1962 and both Secretary and News Sheet Editor from 1967 until 1981. During his tenure of these various FOC posts, he was instrumental in driving the club forward and in encouraging more activity and participation in events. He helped to make FOC the international organisation it is today, visiting the USA twice and making countless friends on both sides of the Atlantic through his FOC work.
Bill died on 7 December 1983, but his callsign is still on the air today - G8VG is now operated by his son, Pete, also an FOC member. Bill is constantly remembered in the club through the Bill Windle Memorial Award and the Bill Windle QSO Parties. The Award is made to the member having obtained the highest number of points for working members once on a different band each month. Each qualifying QSO is even called a ‘Windle’ and the competition runs every calendar year. The QSO Parties, two of which were scheduled in 2008, are open to members and non-members alike. Their main aim is to generate CW activity and have fun!
Al Slater G3FXB
Bill Windle's dedication to FOC was never recognized nor appreciated more, than by Al Sleter - G3FXB. Al saw "The Old Man" begin to weaken and stumble long before his demise. He seamlessly assumed the mammoth responsibilities of keeping the organization running, and no doubt reassured Bill that it would continue to thrive. The Club sponsors an annual award in Al's memory (SK - 1982) that is earned by an exceptional contribution to Ham Radio, which best exemplifies G3FXB's demeanor. Al's style was truly unique. He was a well-known Contester and DXer. FOC gained prestige from his association, rather than vice versa. Al had already given a quarter-century of service to the Club, having joined in 1950, and becoming President in 1970. He later served as Secretary, and then Chairman until his untimely demise in 1992. It was Al's enthusiasm that popularized the Club, and inspired so many others to contribute their skills.
Today, UK membership represents just 26% of the worldwide membership of approximately 500. North American members dominate, representing some 45% of the membership. Continental European countries make up 21% and the rest of the world accounts for the final 8%. There are members in 43 countries.
The longest-standing North American member is Bob Eldridge, VE7BS, a Brit who joined in 1948, and in the USA it’s Elliott Wolheim, W2MUM, a member since 1958 and a lifelong Vice President of FOC in recognition of his contribution to the club in the USA.
The club HQ remains in the UK and an eight-member committee runs the organisation.
As stated in its original aims, the club is all about promoting high standards of CW operating and an extensive on-air events programme reflects this. There are numerous operating awards made each year and during the first weekend of February the FOC Marathon takes place. During this 48-hour members-only contest, stations try to QSO each other on different bands and the competition includes open, restricted and QRP sections to cater for all types of operation.
Activities and Contests
The Bill Windle QSO Party, mentioned earlier, encourages contacts with other FOC members and non-members, but in a more relaxed fashion where a ragchew with old friends is all part of the fun. In addition, activity days are run throughout the year, typically two per month, during which members are encouraged to take to the air.
The social side of FOC is very active too. The 2008 Annual Dinner at the Royal George Hotel in Birdlip, Gloucestershire, in October saw changes to the committee and the inauguration of a new President, Colin Turner, G3VTT, who took the helm from Ian Trusson, G3RVM.
Other dinners include events in Harrogate, Friedrichshafen (Germany), and three in the USA: Florida, Louisiana/Texas, and Visalia on the West coast. There is a traditional breakfast at Dayton.
FOC also sends all its members a monthly News Sheet, either on-line as a PDF document or via mail. There is also a quarterly magazine, printed in full colour and edited by Gabor (S57WJ) called FOCUS, which contains a lot of interesting articles by members.
Is FOC For You?
If you are focused entirely on chasing DX, or contesting, then FOC is probably not the club for you. However, if you have a genuine love of CW and enjoy socialising with others of like interest, then FOC could be just right for you. It takes some work to join - it’s not simply a matter of filling in a form and sending off a cheque.
Firstly, someone has to nominate you - based on their experience of working you on at least two bands within the last year. The station you are working may ask you about your possible interest in joining the club, or your nomination may come out of the blue when a letter arrives from George Eddowes, G3NOH, the Membership Secretary. Upon accepting the nomination you are then added to the ‘Additional Nominations’ List, which means that all FOC members know you are seeking further sponsorship. You then have to find a further four sponsors within six months of nomination. Sponsors must come from at least two continents, with no more than three from any one continent, and at least one must be from the UK. All sponsors must have a QSO with you on at least two bands in order to be able to support your nomination. In recent years, just over half of those nominated have gone on to attain membership.
Actively requesting nomination or sponsorship is frowned upon, but if you are active on the bands, particularly around 25 kHz up from the band edge (10120 to 10125, 18080 to 18085 and 24905 to 24910 kHz in the WARC bands), you will often work FOC members and, if you can hold a QSO at 25 WPM or so without your CW falling apart, you will find members eager to sponsor you. More details can be found on the FOC web site.
Far from being elitist, FOC is an active, friendly and welcoming club that is constantly seeking out new members to share its goals.
The character of the club is well expressed in its slogan: “A man should keep his friendship in constant repair"- Samuel Johnson (1755).