When did you start collecting things?
It was in the 1990s. I began to collect coffee grinders, espresso machines, and coffee-related items to open a coffee shop.
How did that come about?
I didn't have a plan in life, so I decided to become a chef. I went to Culinary Arts school on the suggestion of my Dad. He suggested I go and that when I was done we'd open a coffee shop.
By the time I finished, he opened a violin business instead.
So how did you start collecting medical devices?
I kept seeing odd things at the antique shows labeled "quackery". No one could ever explain what they were. I bought one once, couldn't figure out how it worked - and left it on a shelf to collect dust.
It was a Bleadon Dun "Baby Violetta" Violet Ray.
What happened next?
I kept collecting espresso machines. Mainly the stovetop variety from Italy, Spain, and South America. I think I had something like 80 of them. And then I saw another quack device that I looked at every month at the antique show. The seller had it marked $300. I finally offered them $50 and I think they counter-offered $100. So I bought it... I brought it home, plugged it in, and the TV started making funny noise from inside it. A deep humming sound came from the speakers. So I decided to unplug the TV thinking I might break something... but it was already unplugged. It was my first experience with wireless energy - and I was hooked.
Weren't you afraid of it?
Not exactly. I knew vaguely of a mysterious man named "Tesla" and figured it might have to do with him. We had an old neighbour Quinn. He was an electrical engineer from out west. The machine was called a "Short Wave Diathermy Machine", and he remembered one from his university days in...Tulsa I think. He said "no one was allowed to plug it in or touch it".
Is that what started your collection?
It was a catalyst of sorts. Every month we went to this large antique show and one of the next times a guy was demonstrating a "Violet Ray" machine similar to the one I bought. He plugged it in and it was sparking against the table. I was hooked. I bought it for something like $35. And I told the guy "I'll buy every one you can find if you get more and price them around that." It turns out I probably bought 20 or 30 of them from the same fellow in the next few years... he traveled the country. I forget his name, but he had a real Southern accent and always wore a cowboy hat - and was married to a black woman. He always had cool stuff for sale. And he always knew I'd buy the stuff.
It sounds like the start of a museum...
Well I tried looking up the machines on the internet and there wasn't really a mention of any of them. I decided it might be a calling in life... it was only later I learned the real history... that most of it was erased, destroyed, burned, etc. But it felt like the right thing to do. I didn't yet have a purpose in life so it seemed like something fun to explore...
You seemed to succeed in that. You're probably the most well-known collector of these kinds of machines in the world.
There were many people who collected them. But I came around at the right time - the internet was kind of new, and I found a void to fill. And at first it was kind of a joke. I remember making a website where stolen images of Scooby Doo would tell about forgotten medical devices. And somehow, oddly enough, I received a lot of attention and web traffic.
I remember you telling of how many strange places you would be referenced at...
I was on a list of top museums in America...for some Scandinavian country, Sweden or Denmark I think. There were 10 museums, including the Smithsonian. I think I was number 3. I have no idea how, but in those days I think it was based on web traffic alone. In the early 2000s I had more than a million visitors a year online. That quickly grew to 7 million, and then 10 million. It was crazy. I was beginning to not believe the statistics. It was something like 140 countries. At one point you could Google "Jeff Behary" and over 250,000 results showed up. Everything from schools and museums to antique shops, oddities, bondage sites, encyclopedia entries, articles, blogs, and "look what strange place I found by accident on the internet". No rhyme or reason whatsoever.
Which countries were the most popular?
That was always interesting for me. The United States, Russian, Germany, United Kingdom, and Czech Republic were always on the top of the list.
You donated a Tesla Coil to the Czech Republic...how did that come about?
That was something extraordinary. I had always had an interest in that country from about the age of 14. All my life I was told we were from "Yugoslavia". I knew vaguely that my grandfather knew languages, but mainly it was Old Church Slavonic from being forced to tag along to the Byzantine Catholic Church in Clairton. I always regret never asking him but I can't change time. When my grandfather died, I learned the irony that we were from the country of Slovakia. So we weren't Yugoslavian at all... As it turns out, when he died I went to a local book shop having returned to Pittsburgh. There was a Slovak dictionary for sale written by Hrobak... I bought it. Within the next year I found in Palm Beach a book that would change my life. "Disturbing The Peace" by Vaclav Havel. I read the story of a man who overthrew communism in the former Czechoslovakia. There were rock bands in the story "Plastic People Of The Universe" and "DG 307". The story of the Plastics and Ivan Martin Jirous reminded me greatly of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. I was hooked. As a teenager I never fit in, while everyone was listening to rap and hip hop I was listening to Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed... and silk-screening cows in pink and magenta. Warhol was from Clairton, my grandmother knew his mom and I visited his brother's junkyard with my other grandfather. This idea of a Factory and all of the eccentricity made me want a different life from the norm...and one day I decided to write Havel and ask to donate a large Tesla Coil to be installed on the top of the Hrad castle and throw lightning bolts into the sky.
Did you get a response?
I did! And he kindly requested I donate it to the technical museum instead. It was an epochal event in life, because I had redeveloped a type of Tesla Coil that wasn't experimented with in 100 years...a system of flat coils embedded in wax called "Pancake Coils". They were receiving a lot of attention by people well-known in the Tesla community and things just fell into place. I went to Prague and spent over a month there. I decided to get certified to teach English, and went to school at ITC in Prague. I met some amazing people - Jiri Zeman, an underground enthusiast who worked at the technical museum. He told me the Plastic People Of The Universe were playing and I had to go. It was one of the best concerts of my life. I also befriended one of my English students, Vlastimil Poddany. He changed my life in many ways, and would often visit me in the United States. He scared the daylights of people because he looked like Mr. Clean. But he was a kind and funny man with an amazing naivety, and living with him was a lot like living with Borat.
The Plastic People were an influence to you?
Absolutely. The idea of a dissident and the underground were reoccurring themes in life. One notion of having a museum was to republish all of the quackery books that the FDA tried to confiscate and burn over time. It was at attempt at rewriting history. Samizdat style.
Was it to prove the devices really worked?
No, not at all. It was an attempt to show history for what it was. "Worts and all" as the English say. People don't learn if history is erased. And the FDA tried to delete history in order to "protect the public" from quackery. This is simply absurd, and a great injustice to humanity. The history of quackery is fun and enlightening.
But didn't some of the devices really work?
Of course. But few companies stuck to the facts. They almost always embellished the claims to the point of absurdity. You know, if you're bald it will grow hair but also can get rid of superfluous hair. If you are fat it will make you skinny, or vice-versa. They almost always were developed to treat something specific, and typically worked for that purpose and possibly a few others. But instead of keeping to that, they could sell a lot more with embellishments. The FDA shut down companies and confiscated machines, destroyed them etc. in an effort to protect people. But of course, these companies would just reopen somewhere else and it became a game of cat and mouse. And of course a century later every conspiracy theorist and alternative medical guru is trying to bring them back based on the general public's distrust of the current established medical profession.
Have you ever been approached to make medical devices?
Hundreds of times. I turned down very generous offers of money from charlatans. It's the main reason I've lasted 25 years without going to jail. I was never in it for money, though I could have made a fortune...
Do you ever regret it?
Never. I've received so many emails from people whose spouses died of cancer from buying modern quackery (Rife machines, Lahkovsky machines, etc.) that I would never support such things. It's against everything I believe in- though I tried many times to market a new type of low-cost X-Ray machine or surgical machine to no avail. The medical profession isn't interested in technology that doesn't make money...
Have you ever been visited by the FBI or people from medical institutions?
Many times. The FBI. ADA. OSHA executives. And others. And we all got on fantastically well. I was very careful to publish the truth to the best of my ability, and while it pissed a lot of people off there were few who could argue my facts. And for most organisations, thanks to Ebay and other sources, I was able to find historical "dirt" as it were on all of them. And I bought it for a type of... "insurance" let's say. History is history... and not all tracks were covered as it were.
Have you ever been in a lawsuit about medical devices?
Not personally but I did provide evidence for one company in a dispute. They was a patent infringement lawsuit against two companies who developed micro heart-surgery devices and one asked me to provide historical evidence that the basis of the machines were not new or novel. I did. The machines both companies sold were over $500K each.
Did you get paid well?
I think I asked them for $1000 and spent it all on vodka and vanilla beans to make Kahlua.
We'll come back to Kahlua in a minute. Are there now many other people collecting these things?
I'm glad there are others now. Originally I think it was just Bob McCoy and I with websites, then Peter Barvoets came along, David Rickert, and others. My biggest competitor was Frank Jones followed by John "Grizzy". Fortunately we all became friends and lost this stupid idea that collecting is a competition of sorts. It's an absurd notion. We're all in this together.
I'm particularly happy to have finally met Robert Greenspan. Bob has the most beautiful collection you can imagine! But there are a lot of wonderful people that have broken many molds - Zahi Hakim in Lebanon. John Jenkins. Alastair Wright. Henk. Paolo Brenni. Diego. Kelly McJilton. Andy Barr. Everyone does their part to make history alive. As Bill Wysock used to say "Nobody owns history. We're only stewards who pass it down through our hands." It's so true.
There's aren't many collectors in the world. I think people are afraid of owning history, but when you see how many institutions scrap history I think things are safer in private hands sometimes...
You were often photographed drinking on your website...and wearing few clothes. Was this a kind of image you were after?
I had a museum in my home, and people would show up uninvited. I mean they were always welcome, I just wasn't always ready for guests. So if I was in my underwear or drinking beer I would stay that way. And the funny thing is they never seemed to mind. I always offered them beer or food and most of them stayed 5 or 6 hours chatting away...sometimes until 1 or 2am.
People visited you from around the world. Did you advertise or ...?
Never. It was all word-of-mouth. And that is what made it amazing. I never knew who would show up... random people. Weirdos. Politicians. Authors. Doctors. Professors. Kids. Celebrities. TV Shows. It was all so random and wonderful.
How many people visited you?
In the end it was around 100 people a year. That doesn't sound like much for a museum, but add free food and alcohol to the equation and it adds up.
Did you ever charge admission?
Never. If people were sincere enough to visit me from around the world, I'd be sincere enough to entertain them for free. Most often I was the one being entertained. Occasionally I would get tips.
Speaking of TV shows, how many were you on?
I have no idea actually. So many people had camera or video equipment, many were amateurs making films or documentaries. I never counted. But it was dozens and dozens... I actually did a lot of work and mostly for free, so word also gets around in the TV and film industries. Most people don't realise that faces from TV rarely get paid.
You did everything for free?
Mostly. Sometimes I was commissioned to make props for TV shows and then I started making money. But more often it was "build this and we can pay you back for materials"...
Before my divorce I was getting successful. One month I did two TV shows with props and made $10,000. It was the most money I ever made in my life.
Was the museum your full-time job?
Never. I always had "real jobs" from 8-12 hours a day and then did the museum when I was home.
What kind of jobs?
I worked as a chef initially but was a machinist for 25 years. I also programmed CNC machines and did many CAD drawings using AutoCAD and Solidworks.
When did you sleep?
Rarely. Most of my days I am awake 20+ hours. I have always suffered insomnia to various degrees.
How did the museum effect your marriage?
Well, I went through a divorce that nearly killed me.
Do you want your kids to get involved with what you do?
Not unless they want to. They seem to like history but they also are aware that their Dad isn't normal. And they give me hell for doing dangerous things...
Speaking of danger, you have exposed yourself to a lot over the years. Don't you worry about that?
I already feel the effects. I tend to think of life in dog-years fortunately.
What's the worst thing you have exposed yourself to?
Millions of volts? Mercury? More X-Rays than most people in 10 lifetimes? Gamma Rays? I'm not sure. I've worked in territories considered "unknown" from electrical and radiological perspectives...but the greatest danger has been from X-Rays... and the unknown amounts of low-level X-Rays generated from the unique sparks I had developed the research I was doing.
X-Rays from sparks?
Lightning consistently makes X-Rays, something Joseph Dwyer and his team at FIT discovered by triggering lightning strikes - artificial lightning in the lab also does, but not in all forms. For years I was building on the work of Kinraide and replicating upper-atmospheric lightning in the lab. There is a chance every bolt was making low-level X-Rays, and I was exposed to hundreds of hours of them.
Why did you go to such extremes?
You can't write about history or speak about it intelligently and authentically without experiencing it first-hand. There are only 2 or 3 people in the world I can speak to X-Rays about on the same level, because only that many of people have operated the early equipment in the same way. Similarly you can't make progress being afraid of the unknown. For years as a teenager I was experimenting with electricity and vacuums and had no idea I was creating X-Rays.
How did you meet the Tesla family?
It was a lecture I did in Washington DC, around 2003 or 2004. It was my first lecture in front of a few hundred people and I am extremely shy... but apparently it worked. An old couple rushed towards me introduce themselves... it was Bill and Boyana Terbo. We became instant friends and collaborated until Bill passed. He was the last blood-relative of Tesla. I was privileged to work with him.
Was Tesla the man people believe he was?
The story of Tesla is a complicated one. Very few historical novels are based on facts. He had a fascinating life and was one of the most important inventors of the last few centuries... but he wasn't perfect. Much of his downfall was due to his own actions as much as the actions and greed of others. The difficult part of being a real historian is being able to separate your admiration for someone enough to accept the truth in circumstances where they fall short of your expectations. People are fallible. And history is history, so you have to accept the good with the bad.
Did the family have many people they relied on for accurate history?
There were extraordinary people, I was just one person. Leland Andersen was one of the most prolific collectors of Tesla memorabilia from the year of his death. He was a treasure chest of information. Jim and Ken Corum who did some amazing research authenticating various aspects of his work. I did my part to do the same. Biographer Marc Siefer is another example. Three historians and mentors of mine, Bill Wysock, Jim Hardesty, and Harry Goldman all helped. We all did our parts and never competed with each other... I think we all had the common goal of "truth", which made us very unique. I was always referred to for technical matters because I was one of the few people in the world replicating Tesla's work authentically.
Were you contacted by the families of other inventors?
Many. Charles Campbell. Herman G. Fischer. Thomas Burton Kinraide. Earle Lewis Ovington. Noble M. Eberhart. William Benham Snow. Monico Sanchez. Edwin Lee Edwards. Frank H Swett. Thomas Stanley Curtis. James Seeley. The list goes on and on. Many X-Ray pioneers. And many families I also tracked down on my own. Many have given me artifacts from their families.
What is your favorite piece in your collection?
The Kinraide artifacts. One of the highlights of collecting was finding the original glass plate negatives to the Keely Motor in Kinraide's lab. It was a moment in time I knew I was making history on a worldwide level.
The story of you finding his home is fascinating. Did you really spent 10 years searching for it?
It was reading about Kinraide in 1996 from Frederick Finch Strong's book High Frequency Currents that I learned about Kinraide. It was just a paragraph or two. But it set me on a quest to learn more. In April 2005 I found myself in the hidden rooms of his mansion that I read about nearly a decade before.
Are you still researching his work?
This past year I published over 5000 pages on his life to archive.org. I am currently restoring a machine that one of his family members bought me. The same machine I saw a picture of in Strong's book the year I decided to start a museum. So yes.
Are you still doing research?
I am currently exploring uncharted territories of ultraviolet radiation... and it's quite exciting.
Are you still building Tesla Coils?
Not so much these days. I've made something like 300 of them over the years. It's time to try something new...
What other things do you enjoy?
These days I appreciate time with friends - something I never made time for previously in life. I appreciate drinking at the local pub.
Has COVID-19 effected your life?
Greatly. I developed a 90+ page patent in response to it. I've been documenting it since the beginning. I also took up watching Youtube videos again in a response to lockdown. Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Fry, Ricky Gervais, Richard Dawkins, John Cleese, Rowan Atkinson, David Bowie, Iggy Pop... all good stuff.