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Originally published October 9, 2012 at 9:22 PM | Page modified October 11, 2012 at 1:44 PM

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4 million volts of electricity coming at you — for fun

Want to experience 4 million volts of electricity coming at you while you sit in a metal cage? The Spark Museum of Electrical Invention in Bellingham has its MegaZapper ready, plus what it says is the world's largest private collection of mankind's electrical history.

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BELLINGHAM — There is no denying this is an excellent way to promote a museum devoted to electrical inventions: Let patrons sit inside a 9-foot-tall metal cage and zap it with blue sparks carrying 4 million volts.

OK, so maybe the insurance company will have a few questions, says John Jenkins, president of the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention museum here.

That's why he forwarded to those underwriters a letter from professor Brad Johnson, chair of Western Washington University's department of physics and astronomy.

The professor called it a "most exciting and educational show" and said that, because of "well-established physical principles," anybody inside the cage was safe.

The professor explained that the cage is called a Faraday cage. The sparks come from a Tesla coil, in this case a big one also rising 9 feet.

The electricity doesn't go inside the cage because it spreads along the metal enveloping it.

That's why, says Jenkins, during a lightning storm it's safer to sit inside a car, at least a car made of metal. If lightning hits the car, its outer surface will carry most of the lightning.

The museum has big hopes for the cage, which it has called the MegaZapper.

After 11 years of struggling, maybe this is what will start drawing big crowds to the astounding museum in this city's downtown.

And astounding it is, containing what Jenkins says is the world's largest private collection of mankind's electrical history.

You want to see the electric pen invented by Thomas Edison in 1876? It's here.

What about one of the four telephones used in the first transcontinental telephone call in America on Jan. 25, 1915? It's here.

Or one of the first dial telephones, invented in 1891 by a Kansas City undertaker tired of having central-office operators (as all calls then were placed) not connect customers to him? With the dial, calls could be made directly.

There are even inventions that are bit on the odd side, like the 1934 Thermalaid Prostate Warmer for ailments in that particular body region.

It takes someone with passion to run a collection that also includes 2,000 radios, 30,000 early phonograph records and 30,000 vacuum tubes.

"I love the smell of ozone in the morning," says Jenkins — the smell put out by those sparks carrying the 4 million volts.

He is 59, one of those ex-Microsoft guys who could retire early. He spent 15 years with the company, retiring in 2001 as a general manager of worldwide sales and marketing.

Jenkins grew up in the Bellingham area, the son of an electrician for Georgia-Pacific. There were three sons in the family, and dad was always doing electrical projects with them, such as making an electromagnetic toy crane that could pick up nails.

The boys also made their own Tesla coils, named after inventor Nikola Tesla. The coils could produce high voltage using low current.

"Think of it as when you're standing behind a kid on a swing, and if you push the swing at just the right time, the swing starts going really high. You're adding energy at just the right time. That's what a Tesla coil does," says Jenkins.

Attending Sehome High School, during football games, Jenkins would take a homemade Tesla coil attached to a flashlight battery and get some 50 kids to hold hands and get zapped.

"The shock was big enough for everybody to jump in the air," he remembers.

Jenkins began a hobby of collecting radios and ended up having a neighborhood radio-repair business. He found a 1924 radio that his grandparents had in the basement and repaired it.

He remembers the speaker: "Beautiful needlepoint tapestry."

His love for old electronics never stopped.

It was in 2001 that Jenkins met up with Jonathan Winter, another Bellinghamite, who also loved old radios — so much that he started the Bellingham Antique Radio Museum.

The two joined forces.

Jenkins bought an old brick department store at 1312 Bay St. in Bellingham that had been converted to office space.

It became the Spark Museum and in the 11 years since, the building keeps getting work done on it, and exhibits keep getting expanded.

When more money has been needed, Jenkins has sold one of his valuable collector's items, including a 1912 Marconi radio receiver such as was used on the Titanic.

Jenkins says the museum is finally close to breaking even, with 15,000 visits last year.

Now comes the MegaZapper. You can try it for $5.

"It's like the star attraction," says Jenkins.

The cage was designed by Sedro-Woolley artist Rik Allen, who does a lot of sculptures with rocket imagery and is a fan of the museum.

He made sure the wire mesh enveloping the cage has such small holes that nobody could stick their fingers through it and get accidentally zapped.

One of the original plans had it looking more like a cylindrical bird cage. Now the top is rounded to point at the Tesla coil.

"It makes it look a little more dangerous," says Allen.

What it's feel like being inside the cage?

The zapping is noisy, the sparks are dramatic. It's all over in 20 seconds.

Jenkins was the first to try out the MegaZapper, sitting on an antique barber's chair.

He wasn't too nervous, but as the sparks were flying, he brushed the metal with the back of his hand to test it.

There are established scientific principles that tell you everything will be fine.

But when a giant arc of 4 million volts is coming at you, well, you do gulp.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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