Tourist in Your Own Town
5:01 am
Thu August 29, 2013

At Bellingham's SPARK Museum, a 4 Million-Volt Jolt for Visitors

In a region that prides itself on being innovative, the SPARK Museum of Electric Invention in Bellingham is where to go when you want to marvel at the wonder and power of electricity.

There are 60,000 different items on display including a Blickensderfer manual typewriter from the 1930s, a telephone switchboard from that same era, and a theremin, which makes music just by waving your hands over it. 

Museum director John Jenkins demonstrates what the museum's Van de Graaff generator can do.  

He picks up a pompom, holds it close to the spherical device, and its fringe stands on end. He feels like a mad scientist in here. And that's the sort of delight he wants all museum patrons to feel.

John Jenkins
Credit Florangela Davila

Jenkins, a retired Microsoft guy and a former Hewlett-Packard electrical engineer, cannot stop raving about the wonder of electricity.  

"If science were a family, then electricity is the crazy uncle. It's the one that sneaks up behind you and pokes you in the ribs, and makes you jump."

How he helped found this museum goes back to childhood in nearby Lake Sammish.

"Bellingham was always the cool place to go when we went back-to-school shopping or for Christmas, or for things like that," he said.

His dad was an electrician at the local pulp mill, the kind of man who could fix anything. So Jenkins grew up tinkering, too.

"I took everything apart—my parents' phonographs, my parents' cuckoo clocks," he said. 

He took those things apart, but he generally didn't put them back together, satisfied by just discovering how things work. 

In a part of the museum known as The Listening Room—a space filled with couches, bookshelves, and a radio playing old-timey music—Jenkins talks about the time he was playing in his grandparents' basement when he came across a marvel: a 1926 RCA radio.

"And I’d never seen anything like that. I can still remember the first time I turned that radio on, and sound came out of the speaker and music came out of it. It was like magic!" he said.

That started his collection. Soon he began driving up and down the Interstate 5 corridor with his grandmother, visiting antique stores. Decades passed, and he never stopped. He hunted down all kinds of technological firsts, including the telephone that Alexander Graham Bell used to make the first transnational call. 

Eventually Jenkins combined his own collection with that of Jonathan Winter's, a Bellingham resident, and they opened the museum in 2001. Initially known as the American Museum of Radio and Electricity, the museum has the largest display of early electrical apparatus in the world.

But that wasn't enough to draw in large crowds.

Enter: The MegaZapper, a machine that makes 12-foot bolts of lightning right in your face while roaring like a Boeing 747 taking off.

Jenkins bought half the machine, a giant 9-foot-tall Tesla coil, from Cirque du Soleil, which had put it in storage after a freak accident involving magician Criss Angel. 

In order to let patrons experience the bolts of lightning, the museum commissioned a huge metal cage by famed Steampunk sculptor Rik Allen. Step into the cage, sit in a barber chair, and from across the room, the Tesla coil fires off the lightning.

It's a freaky experience, but also perfectly safe. You've got lightning shooting straight at you. The sound is deafening. And you're in a cage. But once you realize nothing is going to happen to you, you start to want to stand up and reach out and put your hands to try to touch the lightning, although you don't actually touch it. You feel a little like a moth totally attracted to the light. 

Also reassuring is the fact you first sit in the audience and watch The MegaZapper show during which someone else get zapped. Then it's open to anyone who wants to volunteer to try. 

Jenkins was the first person to get MegaZapped. For insurance purposes, he had a Western Washington University professor sign off on the machine's safety.  

The museum also has a whole host of safety measures in place during the MegaZapper show, which happens only on the weekends. For a donation of $20, you can get MegaZapped yourself. It's a one-of-a-kind experience, just like the museum.