His eyes sparkling with excitement, Jim Hood, 87, prepares to turn on an awe-inspiring electrical device fashioned out of an empty oatmeal box, strands of copper wiring, a capacitor from an old TV and a transformer from an antique neon sign.
"I am going to light up your life," says Hood, joking with visitors touring his St. John Science Museum in St. John, Kan. (pop. 1,318), as he steps on the pedal of a retrofitted 1930s industrial drill to demonstrate his improvised Tesla coil.
The contraption emits a crackling noise before foot-long sparks flash from the coil—the same result that Nikola Tesla found in 1890 as the Serbian-American scientist explored the realm of high-voltage, high-frequency electricity.
Bringing to life the whiz-bang thrills of science was Hood's goal when he opened the museum in 1987 after nearly 40 years as a high school science and math teacher. He charges no entrance fee to the museum, and his greatest pleasure is helping youngsters appreciate science as more than facts, formulas and abstract concepts on a page.
"Ninety percent of students can't follow that highbrow book material," he says. "But if you find a way to show them how a physics principle works, to demonstrate how air has mass, then they get it."
The museum's 32 displays focus on lifestyle-altering inventions of the Industrial Revolution related to electricity, light and sound.
Using a coil from a Model T Ford and a transformer from a microwave oven, Hood demonstrates how Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi developed technology that made him a founding father of radio communication and earned him a Nobel Prize for physics in 1909. With an empty Folgers coffee can and the handset of a rotary dial telephone, he shows how Alexander Graham Bell, at the age of 29, used electricity to transmit his voice via the first telephone in 1876.
"Schools don't teach practical science applications today," Hood says. "You can get through four years of college without ever seeing how things work."
Part of the fun of the museum, Hood says, is demonstrating sound scientific principles without investing in expensive equipment. He loves sifting through trash bins to rescue discarded blow dryers, toasters, washing machines, ovens and satellite dishes to salvage useful components.
"I'll never forget collecting empty cans along the side of the road so we could solder them together to make an antenna for our ham radio station," says Loren Batchman, 70, of Solana Beach, Calif. (pop. 12,979), a student in St. John in the 1950s who went on to build space launch vehicles for defense contractor General Dynamics.
Working with Hood today is Chris King, 18, who turned a microwave transformer into the power source for the museum's wireless telegraphy display. "I had no idea science could be this interesting or this much fun," says King, who visits the museum three days a week to work on projects for credit at St. John High School.
A 1948 graduate from what is now Northwestern Oklahoma State University, Hood spent eight years teaching in Englewood, Kan. (pop. 109), and completed his career at St. John High School, where he practically lived in his classroom and was named Kansas Teacher of the Year in 1969.
After retiring, Hood borrowed $4,000 to buy a former Firestone tire store on Main Street and, with the help of his wife, Joyce, and volunteers, transformed the downtown storefront into Hoods Haven, a doughnut shop that featured science demonstrations on the side. "The doughnuts and coffee were a front," he jokes. "They brought in enough money to keep the science experiments going."
Eventually, Hood repaid the loans, dropped the snacks and concentrated on science exhibits, which line counters along three walls and on a row of tables in the middle of the 2,250-square-foot museum. Each exhibit is numbered and labeled, some with thumb-tacked photos of inventors such as Tesla and Thomas Edison. They feature hands-on contraptions such as an empty coffee can rigged with a handle that, when thumped properly, extinguishes a candle a foot away, and an exercise bike that, pedaled fast enough, generates power to illuminate a light bulb.
The museum's centerpiece, however, is Hood, who scarcely can contain his enthusiasm when running 150,000 volts of electricity along a fourth-graders arm or creating a hydrogen explosion that can be heard clear across the town square.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's a national treasure," says Ron Culbert, 55, a retired archaeologist and museum volunteer.
Hood says there's no great mystery, though, behind his lifelong calling to teach science.
"It fascinates me how things work in our universe—the stars, the energy, the movement," he says. "That's why I love science so much."