K5LAD - 50+ Years of Ham Radio Memories

Volume XIV

A Shocking Novice Deed – only now being told

It’s been a half-century so I guess it’s OK to tell this next story.  I think I’ve mentioned somewhere before that my first transmitter, used for my Novice operation, was a Globe Chief 90 sold by WRL in Council Bluffs, Iowa.   This transmitter was a CW only unit with a pair of 807s in the final and could run 90 watts input on 160-10 meters.  (Note that back in those days, unlike current times, all transmitter specifications and FCC rules, reported the power measurements and maximum allowed power in Input Power and not Output Power.  Input Power is easily calculated as the voltage to the final tube/s times the current drawn by the final tube/tubes.  Output to the antenna was typically 50% to 75% of the Input Power.  Output power now is easily displayed directly on meters.)

The Globe Chief 90 shown below was not a picture of my actual transmitter but one I found on the Internet.   Mine looked a lot like this one but had a Standby toggle switch mounted between the green light jewel (left side) and the meter. 

Globe Chief 90.jpg (51659 bytes)

Back to the Globe Chief 90 story --- the transmitter had no interlock safety switches and you had to depend of the rig being kept inside the steel cabinet to protect the user.  I guess I should say that if it was actually kept inside that steel cabinet, the user actually was protected from the high voltages floating around inside.   Of course, I was a foolish young Novice and if I kept it in that safe condition I could not draw arcs off the plate caps.  And herein lies the story………..

Now for the uninitiated who came up during a later time, they missed the real joy of watching the arc as you touched the plate cap of a transmitting tube with a screwdriver or the point of a lead pencil and drew it away from the cap a short distance.  The arc was the result of an RF voltage rather than from the several hundred DC volts used to generate the RF, and it did not require a wire to ground to complete the circuit.   Just hook the transmitter output into a dummy load (which was usually made up of an incandescent light bulb), key the transmitter and touch the pencil or screwdriver to the plate cap and draw it away.  The arc was fascinating to watch, much like the Jacob’s Ladder, which was popular in early TV science or space stories.   

Most Novices also had several NE-2 neon light bulbs lying around since they only cost 9 cents each.  The NE-2 was a somewhat oval-shaped glass tube about a half-inch long and a quarter of an inch in diameter with two small wire leads sticking out of one end.   Inside was the colorless neon gas and two metal pieces a small distance apart.  It took about 65 volts, AC or DC, to ignite the gas in the glass tube.  You could tape that neon bulb to anything to use as a handle (a pencil, a Popsicle stick or any stick-like item handy) and you could place it around the plate of the tube and watch it light up to an orange glow.  It was as if it were magic since nothing --- neither of the wire leads of the bulb were touching anything yet it glowed and glowed rather brightly, as I recall.   It was the same kind of magic you could see if you held a fluorescent light tube near a mobile antenna on 75 meters and watched the eerie glow as you keyed the mobile transmitter and saw the light fluctuate as you modulated the AM signal.  It was as if you were getting free electricity created from nowhere.  Obviously, it was not this at all but was the RF emanating from the antenna or the transmitting tubes.

This next part, I don’t believe I’ve even told to anyone because it was such a foolish and highly dangerous deed.  I have, however, (somehow) survived to include it in my stories of my 50 plus years as a ham so I’m now certain that this activity to be told is not what sent me to my final reward.  Here’s where I should caution, “Kids, you should not try this at home!”

My bedroom at home was a small knotty-pine-walled cubical probably about 8 feet by 10 feet.  It included my bed, a 4- drawer dresser, my operating table and little else.  Between the bed and the table, which held my ham equipment, was just space enough for an ancient office swivel chair on wheels.  To move around in the room required altering one’s priorities and easing by and around that chair.  I add this information only to show that while seated in the chair, the bed was very close behind me.

The foolish deed, to which I now confess, was done late one evening when my family had already retired to their beds and left me to do my diabolical ham radio activities.  I remember that evening (actually probably closer to early morning) when I had removed the transmitter from its protective steel case and I had it sitting on the desk where I could enjoy seeing the glow from the filaments of the 807s and the rectifier tube.   I remember that I had added a toggle switch on the front panel of the transmitter to lift the center tap of the high voltage winding on the transformer from ground.  This let me keep the filaments on but I could completely kill (ouch….. probably the wrong word here……..), that is, I could defeat the high voltage completely.  It was my “Standby” switch.

I had in my hand a kitchen knife with a wooden handle and I was planning to draw some of those exciting arcs off the tube plate cap.  I reasoned that with a wooden handle, I was insulated and I would be safe.  Ah, but remember I admitted to being young and foolish and I didn’t think about the metal brads which went all the way through the wooden handle and held it to the blade.  (stupid……stupid……stupid………………….).  I remember holding the tip of the knife blade on the cap of one of the 807s, holding the knife in one hand while I reached up to the toggle switch to turn on the high voltage.

Let’s see now; to recap, one hand was on the plate cap (which would soon have 700 volts coming to it) through the knife and a brad, and the other hand was about to flip the toggle switch on the grounded front panel (yes, the grounded toggle switch handle) to turn on the high voltage.  Of course, when I first touched the switch, there was no high voltage but when I flipped that switch and applied the voltage to the tube plates, I completed the circuit.

Fortunately, the intense shock caused my arm muscles to jerk VIOLENTLY and I was thrown back in my chair the short distance and I was tossed onto my bed.  I remember lying there for several minutes realizing what a stupid thing I had done and contemplating my own mortality.

I believe enough time has elapsed that I can tell this story and hopefully, the statute of limitations on stupidity has run out (if that’s possible).  I’m guessing that the Lord was laughing too hard to prepare another place for me at that time and He wanted me to eventually tell this story to others to either let others know how foolish a Novice can be or else to let others know how stupid I was………. am……… perhaps both.

I had other occasions where I did crazy things and I’ve had quite a few other shocking experiences in my ham career but this one was the first, the stupidest, and nearly the last.  I think it did give me such a memory that I’ve been much, much more careful around high voltages.  Perhaps what I learned (and survived) helped me to be much more aware and careful when I built my 4-1000A amplifier years later.  With 4000+ volts on it, a mistake would have been much more serious……….. and final.

 Jim – K5LAD

Follow up information:  This article was written a week or two before the 2009 Green Country Hamfest in March.  At the hamfest, I happened to be talking to a couple of other old time hams and, since I knew I’d already confessed to my stupidity in this article, I related the tale to the other two.   By the strangest of coincidences (I think) both of the other two had a similar story to tell of something like this that they did in their Novice days, which should have landed them in the “big dirt nap.”

I looked around the hamfest room and thought, if the three of us here have a similar story to tell and the room was filled with several hundred other hams, there must be others who have done and survived a similar experience.  Do hams somehow lead a charmed life?  Perhaps hams have been set aside by the Lord to provide Him with humor relief……….. “Hey, St. Pete, come over here and watch this.  There’s another one of those hams about to do something really idiotic with their transmitter.”

Still, providing Him with a good laugh may eventually tire Him so that the obvious reward is given.  Be careful around those voltages there ham……….. or as Elmer Fudd would say, “Be vewwy, vewwy, caewful.”

 73, Jim – K5LAD

The page was updated on 05/10/13 12:51 AM

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