Bellingham Museum Tunes In and Turns On

With the U.S. dollar falling like a stone against the Canadian dollar, American destinations are once again becoming affordable. Boston, Boca Raton, Bellingham.

Granted, when most people think of heading down I-5 through Washington state, they're either focused on Seattle or have designs on cheap socks at the Bellis Fair Mall. But there is a not-so-hidden gem of a destination just off the interstate in Bellingham. The American Museum of Radio and Electricity is located in the centre of downtown Bellingham. Surrounded by small shops and restaurants, it makes a great day trip from either Vancouver or Seattle.

Bellingham (population 70,000) is a lot livelier than you might think. Improv guru Ryan Stiles has just opened the Upfront Theatre, and the Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro has been brewing great things since 1995. And it's just an hour from Vancouver.

The first thing to notice about Bellingham is the bohemian flavour of the restored downtown core. There's so much long hair and hemp clothing that, if not for the lack of pot odour, you'd swear you were on Commercial Drive.

But the museum stands alone. In fact, it stands out. The museum seems to take up a full city block. Out front, the art-deco design announces the museum, and large windows feature examples of the treasures within. I felt like I was going back to another time from the moment I angle-parked outside and dropped a quarter into the meter for a full hour of parking. Inside, the history of both radio and electricity are presented as a story line. As you walk through the museum, you see four centuries of really cool science.

The two driving forces behind the museum share not only a love of radio and electricity, they share the same first name. Jonathan Winter and John Jenkins are the museum's cocurators. Both have been fascinated with radio and electricity since they were kids. The museum got its start when Winter settled in Bellingham. He decided to take his personal collection of vintage radios public, and, in the mid '90s, opened the small Bellingham Antique Radio Museum.

John Jenkins was born in Bellingham. He spent many years in the computer field before retiring from Microsoft in 2001. Like Winter, he spent his childhood playing with radios, ripping them apart and putting them back together. He began to collect radios and also pieces from the early days of electricity, another area that fascinated him.

About 10 years ago, Jenkins's mother told him a shocking secret: there was a small radio museum in Bellingham. He was amazed. How could there be one without his knowledge? He drove from his home in Seattle to Bellingham and met Winter.

"We realized that by joining forces with the two collections, we could create a world-class museum," Jenkins says.

Bellingham may seem an odd choice for this kind of museum, but to them it made perfect sense. Winter still lives there and Jenkins wanted to give something back to the community he'd been raised in.

In this case, size does not matter. "It could be a major attraction in any major city in the world; the collection is certainly worthy of that," Jenkins explains. True, being located on I-5 is a good place to be: Vancouver just up the road, Seattle just down it. And two blocks away, the Whatcom Museum of History & Art gets 100,000 visitors a year. "So there are plenty of visitors," Jenkins says.

Walking into the 23,000-square-foot facility, you're struck by just how big the collection is. It is a unique museum, says Jenkins. "The breadth and depth of the collection--there really isn't anywhere that tells the complete story of the development of radio and electricity from the beginning."

One of the more bizarre exhibits is the theremin. It's the world's first electronic musical instrument, invented in 1919. It looks like a preacher's pulpit with two antennas sticking out. One controls pitch; the other, volume. To play it, you wave your hand over the antennas; this changes the pitch and volume. A lot of skill is needed to play the theremin correctly; otherwise, the beautiful music that it produces sounds more like a handheld metal detector. Or Kraftwerk. The museum is one of the few places that actually allows visitors to play the instrument.

Besides this curiosity, there are hundreds of vintage radios on display, as well as hundreds of artifacts from the early scientific exploration of electricity. Many of the pieces can only be seen otherwise at places like the Smithsonian Institution. Some are one-of-a-kind.

The Dawn of the Electrical Age features rare items from the 17th and 18th centuries. Much of the equipment comes from the study of electricity, and the museum has re-created the kind of lab that Benjamin Franklin might have used when he conducted his famous kite experiment.

Over in the Marconi wireless room, the story of the Titanic is told. Built around an original Marconi wireless set, the display is an exact replica of the Titanic's radio room. It's eerie to hear a description of the Titanic's last moments as it clipped an iceberg and sank into the icy North Atlantic. (Don't worry, Celine Dion doesn't sing!)

If design is your thing, the collection of radios from the last century will have you spellbound. Some of the radios don't even look like radios; they're cleverly disguised as statues and vases.

Turn the corner and suddenly you're sitting in a 1930s living room, staring at the radio and visualizing the adventures of the Lone Ranger. A special system of internal broadcasting lets Winter and Jenkins feed six different stations through the electrical wires. Each broadcasts different vintage content, so when visitors twirl the tuning knob on the big radio, they surf though the stations and programs just like in the old days.

Education is a priority at the museum. "One of the things we're trying to do is expose the process of discovery," Jenkins says. "One of the ways of getting kids interested in science is to help them understand that inventions don't just happen in a single eureka moment. It's a lot of trial and error and a lot of hard work." The hands-on approach means that kids--and adults--can learn by doing.

Winter points out some of what he calls the holy grails of the collection: unique and extremely rare pieces, like the Collins Wireless Telephone. Built in 1909, it was billed as the first device to transmit sounds without wires. After the invention of the telegraph and the telephone, radio was touted as the next big thing, and investors were looking to get in on the ground floor. Collins went on the road with his device, saying it was the future of communication. In demonstrations, the wireless telephone worked wonders. Conversations seemed to be taking place across great distances. In reality, the other party was six inches away in the next room. The wireless telephone was just a scam used to sucker investors.

In January, the museum will become a radio station when KMRE signs on, featuring vintage newscasts, plays, and music, along with some original programming. The low-power FM station will also stream to the world via the Internet ( Not bad for what started as a little collection in a small city off the interstate, and much more interesting than buying socks at Target.

ACCESS: The American Museum of Radio and Electricity is at 1312 Bay Street, Bellingham; phone (360) 738-3886. Take I-5 south to Exit 253, Lakeway Drive. Then follow the signs. Hours are Wednesday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and by appointment. Admission is US$4, children $2.