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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

It all started with a spark

Collectibles on display at The Spark Museum Wednesday, Feb. 15. // Photo by
Harrison Amelang

You can get 4 million volts of electricity shot at you, protected only by a large metal birdcage called the Cage of Doom. You can see phonographs, typewriters and try your hand at a theremin. The Spark Museum downtown is a collection of fascinations, co-founded by John Jenkins and Jonathan Winter. Jenkins said the assortment of items in the museum, especially the MegaZapper show, has made them one of the top tourist attractions in town.

“If science was a family, electricity would be the crazy uncle,” Jenkins said. “It’s just so much fun.”

The museum offers patrons everything from Thomas Edison’s original light bulb to an electrical show demonstrating four large Tesla coils.

A Tesla coil, named after inventor Nikola Tesla, is a device that transmits energy through the air, manifesting itself as a bolt resembling a lightning strike. It’s reminiscent of equipment from science-fiction films or Frankenstein’s laboratory. The MegaZapper is one of the largest Tesla coils in the country.

This energy is then shot toward museum-goers who brave the Cage of Doom. Patrons in the cage are safe from the mass amount of energy the coil produces because the metal structure catches the volts. Winters said the Tesla coils were brought to create some buzz around the museum.

“If science was a family, electricity would be the crazy uncle. It’s just so much fun.”

John Jenkins

“It became apparent  that the public as a whole is really not all that interested in antique radios,” Winter said. “[But] everybody wonders what a spark is.”

When that spark is included in the four million volts in the MegaZapper’s lightning strike, you have to be careful. Jenkins recounted a story about how they nearly lit the museum’s ceiling on fire experimenting with the Tesla coil.

After a party at the museum, a lone balloon was left over. The Spark crew was interested to know what would happen if they hit it with the MegaZapper.

An old radio on display at The Spark Museum Wednesday, Feb. 15. // Photo by Harrison Amelang

The balloon was attached to a string which immediately caught fire and burned to the balloon part when hit with the electricity. Ablaze, it traveled up toward the ceiling.

Jenkins watched helplessly. He knew the ceiling was too tall for a fire extinguisher to reach. Luckily, the balloon combusted before it could do any damage.

Jenkins and Winter have both been collecting tech items that interested them since childhood. The Spark Museum is the result of the collections they both started at 13, Jenkins said.

The museum offers the chance for people to see the history of electronics and how they’ve developed over the past century, Winter said. While older generations may  reminisce over the typewriter collection, young children are trying to figure out what they are, Winter said.

Western alumna Abigail Russell became involved with the museum through an internship and is now an employee. Russell said she loves interacting with the different generations that show up.

Because of the breadth of the collection, the older generations have often used the items on display. Older patrons will often talk to Russell about their memories after seeing the museum, she said.

“They add to the collection with their own stories,” Russell said.

One of the goals of the museum is getting back to the basics and allowing young people to discover how things used to work, Jenkins said.

Russell said college-age students can be entertaining to watch. On one occasion, she was looking at a collection of phonographs with a group of grad students who were entranced by their mechanics.

Phonographs line the shelves at The Spark Museum Wednesday, Feb. 15. // Photo by Harrison Amelang

“We walk around everyday with iPods and CDs, and we don’t think twice about how they work,” Russell said. “Yet we see something, like a phonograph, that is so relatively primitive and simple, and we’re absolutely fascinated.”

Chelsea Sonnenberg is a biocultural anthropology major, as well as a volunteer at the museum. She said she enjoys working with kids at Spark and trying to translate information they see into terms they can relate to.

Younger visitors are the key link for the museum to Bellingham’s technology scene, Jenkins said. Spark works with the school districts and gets busloads of kids into the museum to get younger generations excited about science.

“We’re trying to create more scientists and engineers, which will make more great employees for the area,” Jenkins said.

Winter said his favorite part of Spark is working with the kids, encouraging them to observe and most importantly, not be afraid to ask questions about how things work and why.

“There’s a cultural gap between the younger generations and the objects that are in this museum,” Sonnenberg said.

The MegaZapper show is put on every Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. A ticket to the show allows admission the museum as well.

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