No matter what your age, haven’t you been fascinated by the ‘magic’ of the forces we cannot see and therefore struggle to understand? Wireless technology, radio and television transmission, and magnetism all seem to defy the confines of our physical world. And yet our daily existence takes them all for granted. That’s why my family loves The Spark Museum of Electrical Invention in Bellingham, covering the dawn of the electrical age as early as the 1600’s, through the Golden Age of radio in the 1920’s, and up through the evolution of today’s modern technology. Not only are these ‘magical’ forces explained for any level of understanding, the museum offers fantastic rare artifacts, hands-on exhibits, and exciting demonstrations to more than 20,000 visitors each year including school groups, travelers from around the globe, and local lovers like me.
Spark Museum is so successful, it has also won Bellingham’s 2018 Tourism Business of the Year.
I have taken my twin boys to Spark many times since they were about six years old. I’ve noticed that each time we’ve gone, they learn and interact with the exhibits differently, as their understanding of natural science and physics has grown and expanded. I’ve also enjoyed visiting multiple times because I was able to focus on a different part of the museum or learn something new that I’d missed before. At our most recent visit, they were 13. We were also fortunate enough to meet the museum’s co-founder, Jonathan Winter who is now the museum’s curator.
A Little History
Winter began collecting radios at a young age in California. By the time he and his wife moved to Bellingham, he had an extensive collection of radios made and used from about 1915 to 1926 that needed to be stored. So almost 40 years ago in the Marketplace Building in Fairhaven (now Sycamore Square), on his own dime, Winter opened the Bellingham Antique Radio Museum. After a year the new museum had to move and was relocated to a tiny spot on Railroad Avenue. People interested in antiques and radio came from around the world to see his collection even then.
That’s when Winter met Spark’s other co-founder, John Jenkins, who is also a collector, but primarily of items that pre-dated radio, those connected to early investigation of electricity. They became friends and both agreed that antique collections are best used as educational tools. That’s when Jenkins suggested they combine their collections to form one larger, more comprehensive museum. The pair were encouraged by many others, including Joe Yaver, long-time President of SPIE (the International Society for Optics and Photonics) who passed away in 2016, to transition the museum to non-profit status. To combine the collections, Jenkins, who had retired from Microsoft, purchased the building where Spark is now located on Bay Street. It was originally named The American Museum of Radio and Electricity. That name changed a few years ago to The Spark Museum of Electrical Invention.
The museum has gradually grown and improved over the years with the help of some dedicated staff, a Board of Directors that includes Jenkins as CEO and Winter as Curator, and a host of volunteers. Winter mentioned that he comes by and volunteers at the museum almost daily, demonstrating the devices and contraptions, some of which were once part of his personal collection. Jenkins also brings in guest speakers including the infamous author and technology historian George Dyson.
On our latest visit, my boys and I explored separately for a time, and then we also followed Winter from exhibit to exhibit to hear from him first-hand what made each piece special. Winter noted the important role the museum plays in education and history: so much has changed in such a short period of time that we must document and share it with younger generations so that the wisdom of the past is not lost. For example, Winter discussed with my son the difference between sound recorded and generated by a phonograph that used no electricity, only springs, metal, copper foil and wax cylinders, and the modern digital music we hear on-line. Younger generations are learning about digital technology at a younger and younger age without learning enough about the scientists and inventions that formed the foundation for its current success. Winter emphasized that we live in a 3-dimensional world but are now learning primarily on a 2-dimensional screen. Spark is an excellent way to be sure we understand the history and physics of sound and electricity that’s easy to take for granted today.
Spark offers more than 39 separate exhibits, each marked by number and noted on a map you’ll receive when you first arrive. They are organized either by era, or by topic. Many exhibits at Spark are color coded. Red means that you’re looking at a rare must-see artifact, many of which are irreplaceable. Green indicates that the item is interactive and patrons are encouraged to operate the device themselves. Blue is used for demonstrations by volunteers, several of which are scheduled each day.
My kid’s favorites were the hands-on exhibits. The Static Electricity Lab allows kids to experiment with electricity, both with antique contraptions and with everyday items they’d find at home. They also enjoyed learning about Morse code, sending their own message with an original telegraph machine. They learned about early sound recording, listened to a speech by President Teddy Roosevelt recorded without electricity in 1909, and learned how a player piano works in the Phonographs and Music Boxes section. They also loved playing the theremin, a musical instrument invented in 1919, that you play without actually touching it, by interfering with its electrical fields.
As an adult, I was fascinated by being reminded how much has changed in just my lifetime and that of my parents and grandparents. Just a blink in time. One must-see item marked in red is a very rare piece, one of the first 26 of Thomas Edison’s first successful electric lamps made in 1879. The museum also has one of the very first color television sets ever made, one of only 1000 made by RCA. It is one of perhaps 30 in the world that still works. If the vacuum tube in the device breaks, it cannot be replaced, making it a very rare and special artifact. The first telephone to make a transcontinental call is also in their collection.
Fans of the Titanic will enjoy seeing the Titanic Marconi Room, which includes the exact radio equipment currently in the ship’s radio room at the bottom of the ocean.
The museum is too vast to take it all in during a single visit. But the good news is that if you live near enough or can visit more than once, becoming a member of Spark will get you free general admission so that you can return multiple times to see it all. I’ve loved taking my children every year or two. As their maturity grows, so does the depth of their understanding, and I’ve also got to see and learn about something different at each stop along the way.
Every Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m., Spark offers a terrific family-friendly 60-minute MegaZapper Electrical Show (children under 5 not permitted). With an explosion of thunder the MegaZapper releases 12-foot arcs of purple lightning.
According to Jenkins, the show is otherworldly. “It is sort of Franklin meets Frankenstein – science reality meets science fiction fun.” Demonstrations include a variety of eye-popping machines reminiscent of Frankenstein’s laboratory. The centerpiece is the fantastic ‘Cage of Doom’ designed and built by world-renowned sculptor Ric Allen.
Following each Show, for a donation, visitors age 18 and over are invited to enter the Cage of Doom while bombarded with over 4 million of volts of loose electricity blasting out of one of the largest Tesla coils in the country. It is a show no one will forget.
Whether you’re a collector of antiquities, a history buff, a fan of explosions and action, or a kid of any age, you’ll find something at Spark to engage your curiosity. My family and I will continue to go and donate for years to come in order to support the fascinating hands-on exhibits, rare historic pieces, dazzling shows, and community radio that make Spark a true gem in the Bellingham and Whatcom County community.