Last Updated on July 11, 2023
Are you brave enough to step into the Cage of Doom?
Every weekend in Bellingham, a small city in Washington state, the MegaZapper — one of the largest Tesla coils in the U.S. – lets 4.6 million volts of electricity loose on the Cage of Doom. For the daring ticket holders inside, it may be the most electrifying experience of their lives.
Electricity is at the heart of the SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention. The museum uses interactive exhibits, live demonstrations, and priceless artifacts to explain the science and history of electrical devices, from experimentation in the 1600s to the radios of the 1950s. Among the nearly 1,000 artifacts on display are an original Thomas Edison light bulb, telegraph machines, early telephones, phonographs, theremins, early batteries, x-ray machines, and many more precursors to modern devices.
One of the museum’s biggest draws is the MegaZapper Show which introduces visitors to all things electrical with experiments that stretch from magnets and static electricity to a Tesla coil and Faraday cage. Lights, music, electric eels, and audience participation all play a role in the lively hour-long show. Occasionally, the presenter uncovers a whiteboard filled with equations, reminds the audience of the underlying math, then covers it up before it can frighten anyone.
It’s a fun, lighthearted and occasionally loud approach to the history and science of electricity.
I’ll admit that before visiting the museum, my knowledge of electricity began with Benjamin Franklin tempting lightning with a key on a kite, muddling through magnets and coils, and finishing with a vague understanding of AC and DC currents.
The MegaZapper show proved an entertaining refresher course on how electricity works, and also provided background and context for the rest of the museum. The MegaZapper was undergoing repairs the day I visited, so I didn’t get to experience the Cage of Doom, but even without the usual spectacular finish, the show ended on a fun note involving light sticks and music from “Star Wars.”
It’s both entertaining and in-demand, so you’ll want to get your tickets in advance.
Early Electrical Science
Outside the MegaZapper theater, the first display visitors encounter is a timeline of early scientists starting with Englishman William Gilbert who wrote about static electricity and magnetism in “De Magnete.” Benjamin Franklin is there, too, as well as less familiar names such as Otto Van Guericke who built the first static electricity generator in 1663.
A recreation of a Victorian-era science lab, accompanied by audio, helps visitors imagine the dawn of the electrical age. Books, journals, tools, and static electricity machines are strewn across an old oak table, and more early devices and books clutter tables around the room. An adjacent display highlights complicated contraptions that would fit right in at a Steampunk convention, except these are authentic static electricity generators from the 1700s and 1800s.
Wanting to generate a little static electricity myself, I headed to the Static Electricity Lab across the hall. The space features more than a dozen devices for visitors to experiment and play with, from balloons to a machine that sends the strands of a cheerleading pompom skyward. My favorite was the loudly buzzing plasma ball with bright blue fingers of electricity that respond to touch.
The museum balances exhibits of priceless antiques with things visitors can touch and play with. Operations Director Tana Granack explained that as much as possible, the museum relates the story of electrical inventions through hands-on, interactive experiences.
“We learned long ago that our curious visitors need interactive devices to fully appreciate our fantastic collection,” Granack said. “That’s why we have an assortment of buttons, switches, telephones, telegraph keys, and musical instruments embedded throughout the galleries.”
Radio Waves: From the Titanic to the Living Room
On the other side of the Static Electricity Lab, exhibits explore radio waves and wireless communications from 1900 to 1950. Crystal radios from World War II and wireless telegraph systems fill the room, accompanied by familiar names: Hertz, Marconi, and Maxwell.
One of the most famous communications over wireless telegraph was sent the night the Titanic hit an iceberg. A recreation of its telegraph room occupies one corner and visitors can listen to the historic distress call from the doomed vessel.
The radio and music theme continues around the corner where a collection of antique music boxes and gramophones illustrate the development of musical recording and playing technology. Volunteers often staff these displays, gently cranking the music boxes and showing off musical cylinders that play songs based on a pattern of carefully punched holes. Brittle shellac 78-RPM records and gramophones from the turn of the century play alongside newer vinyl records, loudly demonstrating the progression in quality.
Nearby, I found the newest items in the collection, radios for personal entertainment. By 1927, wall sockets were beginning to replace unwieldy batteries, and the cabinets holding radios began to shrink.
The museum’s radio exhibits range from carved and polished wood cabinet radios from the 1930s to portable, fit-in-your-pocket transistor radios of the 1950s. Some of them aren’t that different from the radios I had as a kid.
Telephones and Toasters: Electricity in the Home
It’s the Edison light bulb — one of only two remaining in existence — that many visitors come to see. It’s in the room dedicated to telegraphs, telephones, light bulbs, and early home appliances.
A bronze telescope that was used to spy letters spelled out by the changing shapes of the Chappe visual telegraph stands just inside the entrance. Napoleon used nearly 500 of these odd-looking contraptions mounted on towers to send messages across Europe. A keyboard and working 1/12 scale model allows visitors try it for themselves.
They can also use a keyboard to send Morse code on a telegraph from the early 1900s.
Telegraph displays give way to early telephones, including the first dial telephone and a wooden box version that allows you to listen in on a faux party line. I remember my grandmother’s party line (with the associated small-town drama) and couldn’t resist listening for a moment.
A chair in front of the vintage switchboard invites museum goers to play operator, but I became distracted by a slim black telephone nearby. The only remaining transcontinental telephone used by Major Henry Higginson to call Thomas Watson, Alexander Graham Bell, and President Woodrow Wilson in 1915, this is a humble reminder of how far technology has come.
“What if we put in a phone call from San Francisco to New York? What if we patched a phone call together, and you could talk live?” Granack asked. At the time, “it would be like a moonshot.”
Small electric motors from the 1800s and induction coils fill cases along the walls, but it’s the electric medical gadgets and household appliances displayed in the center of the room that capture the imagination. Granack explained that while none of the medical gadgets still worked, the devices are fascinating nonetheless.
The French electromagnetic hairbrush from the 1870s, for example, bristles with metal spikes.
Less scary-looking, but infinitely more dangerous is the portable X-ray machine for home use. More popular with the public were household appliances such as electric toasters, clothing irons, and hair curling wands. They seem so much smaller and simpler than their modern versions.
War of the Currents
About a quarter of the exhibit area is devoted to the War of the Currents between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. Photos, diagrams, and artifacts tell the story of the race in the late 1880s and early 1890s to establish a power transmission system that would provide reliable electricity to homes and businesses.
Westinghouse proved alternating current could light up the night at the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago, earning the metropolis the moniker “White City.” He won the war, but it’s an original and broken example of the first successful Edison light bulb that is the star of the exhibit.
Granack was quick to put it in perspective.
“You invent the light bulb. So what? What do you screw it into? That’s the problem. That’s the challenge,” he said. “And the other thing is, not only do you need more than a light bulb, but you need a whole lot of devices that are game changers. Everything in this room is significant as to why we have electricity today. If any of these things were not here, we wouldn’t have it. It’s not just Thomas Edison. It’s not just Nikola Tesla. It’s thousands of people working hard in very different ways.”
Beyond the Edison Light Bulb
That’s the lesson Granack hopes people will embrace when they come to the SPARK Museum.
“There’s much more to the story of electricity than Benjamin Franklin in a lightning storm and static electricity, so much more innovation and science to discover, but people often don’t realize that,” he said. “They come to the museum looking for the three things they’ve heard about: the thing that makes your hair stand on end (Van de Graaff static electricity generator), that thing that makes spooky sounds when you move your hands in the air (a theremin), and the machines that make lightning (Tesla coils). We’ve got them all, and much more.”
It’s not the Tesla coils I’ll be thinking about the next time I flip a switch and watch the lights come on. I’ll be thinking about that old, burned-out light bulb sitting in a place of honor in a museum.
“What I love about the Edison light bulb, [is that] by itself, it’s just an old glass bulb that no longer functions,” Granack explained. “What makes it rare and invaluable is the story, the context, the implications of being the first to run rivers of electricity to every home and business in the country and give them light. That’s what makes it priceless.”