By Rob Robinette
Many 1940's and 50's radios powered their tube circuits directly from wall voltage without a power transformer and their chassis was connected directly to one of the two power cord wires. When the radio shown below is plugged in correctly with the mains hot to the rectifier plate the amp is relatively safe with the chassis connected directly to the mains neutral (ground) wire. But turn the power cord plug around and you have full mains voltage and current on the chassis. This is why these types of devices are called "widowmakers". The radio will function with the power cord plugged in either way but it will usually receive better with less noise when the chassis is connected to neutral.
True "Widowmaker" All American Five Radio Receiver
The All American Five radio receiver was very popular in the 1940s and '50s. The radio is wired as a true widowmaker--with one leg of the power cord connected directly to the radio chassis (above bottom center). If the power cord was plugged in "backwards" the radio would still function but the chassis would be hot with full mains voltage and amperage. The chassis was insulated from the user to prevent shocks but the metal screws on the bottom of the radio were exposed and present an extreme shock hazard.
I have seen only one guitar amplifier schematic which shows a power cord (mains) wire connected directly to the chassis like the All American Five radio receiver above.
Silvertone 1430 "Widowmaker" Guitar Amplifier
Notice how the power cord is not connected directly to the amplifier's chassis. The chassis ground is on the other side of the RFI (radio frequency interference) AC Ground Cap or "death cap". It provides an AC ground to the chassis so the chassis will block RFI and hum. The V1 Current Return Resistor is also connected to the chassis and allows a return path for V1 cathode current. When plugged in correctly there will be no voltage on the chassis. If the amp is plugged in "backwards" the amp will still function but the chassis will have 125 volts AC mains voltage on it but it will be limited to 4.2ma (2.4ma through the death cap + 1.8ma by the Return Resistor)--the same as any amp with a death cap and two prong power cord--so a player could receive a painful but mild shock.
The Silvertone 1430 shown above does not have its chassis tied directly to the mains like the All American Five radio. It uses an "RFI AC Ground Cap" (death cap) to connect a power cord wire to the chassis to make the chassis an RFI shield. They're called "death caps" because if they fail as a short they will electrify the chassis with full wall receptacle power. The 1430 also has a "V1 Current Return Resistor" to allow V1's cathode current to return to the mains' neutral wire. These two components isolate the chassis and guitar from the mains neutral and hot. Every widowmaker guitar amp and schematic I have seen uses a death cap and return resistor like the 1430 shown above.
Like all amps with a death cap, the 1430 will usually have less noise and hum when the amp is plugged in with the neutral wire connected to the RFI AC Ground Cap. This gives the chassis an AC signal ground which allows the chassis and guitar cable to act as an RFI shield.
Another point of interest is the V1 heater transformer shown above at lower right. The transformer is a safety feature that isolates the V1 heater circuit to prevent shock in case the V1 heater shorts to the cathode which is connected to the chassis. I did find one widowmaker guitar amp, the Magnatone 107, that does not have a V1 heater transformer (ironically the schematic has a big "UL" Underwriter Laboratory stamp). The Magnatone's V1 heater circuit is powered directly by mains voltage like V2.
Magnatone 107 Widowmaker
Note the lack of a V1 heater transformer. The V1 heater circuit is powered directly by mains voltage like V2.
Like any other amp with a two prong power cord and a "death cap" there is a risk of electrocution if the death cap fails as a short. With a shorted cap the chassis and guitar strings will become electrified with full mains power if the power plug is plugged in backwards.
Since the only chassis ground comes from the death cap there is no chassis safety ground. If an AC or DC hot wire comes loose inside the chassis and makes contact with the chassis it will electrify the chassis and guitar strings. With no safety ground the amp will simply sit there and wait for someone to touch the amp or guitar to deliver a very dangerous shock. But again, this is true of any amp with a two prong power cord and a death cap.
With a "normal" amp with a power transformer we can remove its death cap and install a three prong power cord to ground the chassis. The problem with power transformerless widowmaker amps is if we install a three prong power cord and remove the death cap V1's DC return current will flow through the chassis and safety ground while the rest of the amp would return its DC current to the mains neutral wire. It's true the neutral and safety ground wires are tied together at the building's service entrance but a hum inducing ground loop is very likely to be encountered.
After adding an isolation transformer and three prong power cord we can replace the death cap and Return Resistor with a jumper wire to unify the amp circuit ground.
Converting a Widowmaker Into a Safe, Normal Amp
An isolation transformer has to be used in a widowmaker to allow a "normal" and safe unified chassis grounding scheme. Because these amps use half-wave rectifiers you need to almost double the size of the isolation transformer. For this three tube 1430 amp I would use a Triode Magnetics N-53MG rated at 85 watts and 740 milliamps. That sounds like a lot but remember the tube heaters will be powered by this transformer too.
To make an amplifier without a main power transformer (widowmaker) safe do the following:
1. Remove the two prong power cord.
2. Connect a three prong power cord: safety ground to the chassis, Hot to fuse center terminal, Neutral to the isolation transformer input.
3. Connect the other isolation transformer input wire to the power switch.
4. Rewire the power switch so it receives its power from the fuse.
5. Connect the isolation transformer output wires: one to ground and the other wire to where the fuse output was connected.
6. Replace the RFI AC Ground Cap (death cap) and the Return Resistor with a jumper to ground the circuit to the chassis.
The removal of the death cap and Return Resistor and the addition of an isolation transformer and three prong cord are the only way to make these widowmaker amps as safe as any other modern amplifier.
See the Death Cap and Ground Switch page for more info.
RCA Corporation, RCA Receiving Tube Manual, RC30.
Merlin Blencowe, Designing Tube Preamps for Guitar and Bass, 2nd Edition.
Merlin Blencowe, Designing High-Fidelity Tube Preamps
Morgan Jones, Valve Amplifiers, 4th Edition.
Richard Kuehnel, Circuit Analysis of a Legendary Tube Amplifier: The Fender Bassman 5F6-A, 3rd Edition.
Richard Kuehnel, Vacuum Tube Circuit Design: Guitar Amplifier Preamps, 2nd Edition.
Richard Kuehnel, Vacuum Tube Circuit Design: Guitar Amplifier Power Amps
Robert C. Megantz, Design and Construction of Tube Guitar Amplifiers
Neumann & Irving, Guitar Amplifier Overdrive, A Visual Tour It's fairly technical but it's the only book written specifically about guitar amplifier overdrive. It includes many graphs to help make the material easier to understand.
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