SPARK Museum hopes to catch lightning in a bottle with its new MegaZapper show


John Jenkins, the president of SPARK Museum, sits inside a "Lightning Cage" designed by Steampunk sculptor Rik Allen.


John Jenkins swears his heart wasn't pounding when he approached the large metal cage and sat down inside it on an antique barber chair.

As the president of SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention, in downtown Bellingham, Jenkins volunteered to be the human guinea pig for the so-called "Lightning Cage," a mostly spherical steel contraption designed by famed Steampunk sculptor Rik Allen.

A few feet from the cage rose the museum's MegaZapper, a 9-foot-tall Tesla coil that quickly generates 4 million volts, shooting out pale-purple lightning sparks 9 to 12 feet long.

"You hear this thing start to wind up, then all of a sudden there's this huge roar," Jenkins said, describing the experience.

Then the lighting sparks appear, accompanied by the faint, smoky odor of ozone.

"It looks like a lightning paintbrush dancing around on the surface of the cage in front of you," Jenkins said. "It jumps around on the outside of the cage."

Soon everyone will be able to see the MegaZapper in action and, for an extra fee, people 18 and older will be able to experience what Jenkins experienced inside the cage.

After months of work, the museum plans to host an "Igniting the Spark" open house next weekend, Oct. 13-14, to showcase the museum's new name and new exterior, and to unveil its new electrical show with the MegaZapper as the star attraction.

The 45-minute show will be presented several times next weekend, then several times a week long-term. The permanent show schedule will be posted soon at the museum's website.

Formerly called the American Museum of Radio and Electricity, and often referred to as the Radio Museum, SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention changed its name in early 2012 to make clear that its world-class collection of electrical apparatus - including the telephone used in the first transcontinental call and the first successful Edison electric lamp - were the main attraction, not just antique radios.

The name change, plus more marketing, thanks to a $17,000 city tourism grant, has attracted more, and younger, visitors, Jenkins said.

"We're getting a lot more families," he said. "The new brand is more fun and more engaging."

Jenkins, who grew up in Bellingham and now lives in Woodinville, works at the museum a couple days a week. A retired general manager of worldwide sales for Microsoft, he bought the building for the museum a decade ago, a natural given his lifelong interest in early radio and scientific devices.

With the museum's new name, refurbished exterior and extra marketing, it's now at the break-even point, Jenkins said. By offering the MegaZapper show, which costs $5 admission, he hopes to further bolster the museum's finances while presenting science in an eye-popping, exciting way.

"We're putting in a lot of fun and theatrics and drama," he said. "It is sort of Franklin meets Frankenstein; science reality meets science fiction fun."

Staff members will sit inside the Lightning Cage during the MegaZapper show. But after the show, adults who pay an extra fee can sit inside and be photographed while the MegaZapper powers up and spews its sparks.

"It's not dangerous," Jenkins said, "but it's certainly thrilling."


What: Igniting the Spark, a weekend open house at SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention.

Where: 1312 Bay St.

When: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 13-14.

Cost: Free admission to the museum's galleries, kids' activities, special exhibit highlights, photo opportunities, raffles and refreshments. Also, KMRE, 102.3 FM, the museum's radio station, will offer special programming and on-air opportunities for visitors.

Admission is $5 for a new electrical show featuring the 4 million-volt MegaZapper.

Events both days, unless otherwise noted:

Noon - Electrical show with MegaZapper and Lightning Cage.

1 p.m. - Spotlight on Ben Franklin and the dawn of the electrical age.

2 p.m. - Spotlight on the theremin, and how to play the first electronic musical instrument.

3 p.m. - Electrical show with MegaZapper and Lightning Cage.

4 p.m. - Spotlight on the Titanic disaster and the museum's Marconi wireless room.

5 p.m. - Spotlight on eerie quack medical devices (Saturday only).

5 p.m. - Spotlight on the inventions of Thomas Edison (Sunday only).

6 p.m. - Electrical show with MegaZapper and Lightning Cage. Free admission for people in "mad scientist" costumes.

8 p.m. - Spotlight on the inventions of Thomas Edison (Saturday only).

9 p.m. - Electrical show with MegaZapper and Lightning Cage. (Saturday only).

Tickets for the electrical show can be purchased in advance by calling 360-738-3886, and at the door.

Regular museum hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, and by appointment. Regular admission: $6 adults, $3 kids 11 and under.

Details: 360-738-3886 or

Reach DEAN KAHN at or call 715-2291.

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