Last semester, the Florida Tech physics department invited Jeff Behary to one of our weekly colloquiums. Jeff shared with us selections from his personal set of old electric devices he has collected or made over the years. In fact, he has so many that he has turned his house into a mini electrotherapy museum! While visiting Florida Tech, he invited the Society of Physics Students (SPS) and the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) to come see his entire collection in West Palm Beach and we were finally able to drive down there this semester. For a few weeks, we weren’t sure if we would get to go due to Jeff getting ready to move, but the day came and we all piled into the school vans and jammed to the radio all the way there.
One of the first things we saw when we arrived was the contraption pictured above, sitting in the middle of his front room. When he turned it on, sparks formed between the two metal rods at the top, creating a very loud, electric buzzing while the smell of ozone permeated the air. Electricity made in this manner was used in experimentation with paralysis (although not with that exact type of device, but I think the picture gives an idea of the type of old objects I’m talking about). Apparently shocking a paralyzed limb long enough gave the person some temporary motion, like being able to lift their arm. Unfortunately, none of the experiments ever turned into a cure.
Another interesting device is the one pictured above. Jeff is cranking the giant yellow wheel to create static electricity, which then sparks across the metal rods. It looks exactly like the machine in the first Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Jr., except the one in the movie was a lot smaller. It had a charged, hand-held prong, which Sherlock used to throw around the giant trying to kill him. I thought it was wonderful to learn that some of the old technology in that movie might actually be somewhat accurate. I don’t know if a little prong could actually throw someone like it does in the movie, but at least the method of charging it was correct.
Some other interesting things we saw in his house were electric photography, shown below. Sending sparks through different materials can apparently cause different patterns, which were captured as “electric photography.” If I remember correctly, this was done using resin and some kind of dark material sensitive to the electric field. Some people later on even devised a way to make colored patterns.
There were also some fascinating glass tubes Jeff hooked into a wooden box in his room (it was pretty fun trying to squeeze everyone into the little area around the box). The tubes, in many shapes and sizes, lit up with the most magnificent colors. One of them was designed to show a little man standing in the center of the tube when lit up.
All in all, the trip was fantastic! We learned quite a few things we probably couldn’t learn anywhere else. Jeff explained to us that a lot of the things he researches can’t even be found on the Internet. And we had a great time with friends and made new ones as well. We got to know Jeff and we all befriended his cats and dogs, too! One dog really grew attached to Florida Tech student Shiva David; it gave all of us a good laugh and was the perfect end to a wonderful trip.