Today we celebrate the 117th birthday of Russian physicist Leon Theremin, inventor of the musical instrument that bears his name. A pioneer of early electronic musical instruments, Theremin has served as an inspiration to artists and innovators throughout the last century.
Born Lev Sergeivich Teremen, Leon Theremin had an unusual educational background, holding both a degree in physics and a degree in cello performance, it was this unique combination of skills that was the impetus for the invention of the Theremin. The Theremin was born in a scientific laboratory. Leon was working with a device that measured the density of gas and had modified it to not only give a visual readout of the value, but an auditory representation as well. The device would emit a tone that would change pitch as the gas density changed, and Theremin discovered that his body’s proximity to the device would interfere and affect the tone. Using the control learned as a cello player Theremin managed to play a simple tune with the device and based on the delight of his coworkers, decided to develop it into a full-fledged instrument.
The Theremin is played without ever physically touching it, two antennas attached to the instrument emit electromagnetic fields, by interrupting these fields a player can affect the pitch and volume of the instrument creating eerie and ethereal music. Leon Theremin famously demonstrated the instrument to Vladimir Lenin who was so impressed that he sent Theremin across Russia, Europe, and eventually the United States to demo his invention. Theremin intended to stay in the United States for only 6 months, but through continuous extension of his visa ended up remaining here for 11 years. During this period Theremin and his instrument caught the attention of Clara Rockmore who went on to become the worlds greatest Theremin virtuoso. Theremin’s stay in the US proved very fruitful for him, he negotiated a contract with RCA to mass produce his instrument and was able to patent many of his other inventions, but beneath the surface Theremin’s visit served another purpose.
When Lenin sent Leon Theremin on his tour of the world, he did so not only to have Theremin demonstrate his instrument, but also to spy on the world’s engineers. For the 11 years that Theremin was in the United States he was also conducting industrial espionage. By submitting his patents and befriending other inventors, Theremin was granted access to sensitive documents and trade secrets, information that he shuttled back to Russia. This continued until 1938 when Theremin mysteriously disappeared from his New York apartment. It is widely believed that Russian officials extradited Theremin, but many feel that he fled the states of his own volition, either out of fear of his cover being blown or pure homesickness.
When Theremin returned to Russia he was not welcomed as a hero instead he was sent to a work camp where he was forced to create listening tools and bugging devices to be used by the secret police. It was during this period that Theremin created “the Thing” a device that was concealed in a replica of the Great Seal of the United States and presented by Soviet school children, as a gesture of friendship, to the US Ambassador. The device transmitted confidential conversations from the ambassador’s office for seven years until it was accidentally discovered in 1952.
After many years of captivity Theremin was released from the Soviet work camps and was free to live out his life. He went to work at the Moscow Conservatory of Music where he continued to build Theremins and train musicians in the playing of the instrument. Theremin’s last pupil was his grand niece Lydia Kavina, who is now considered one of the best Theremin players in the world.
Theremin died in 1993, but not before returning once more to the United States where he was able to reunite with his first protégée, Clara Rockmore, and the other people from the life he was forced to leave behind. Leon Theremin’s legacy is everlasting, the Theremin is still produced today, and his life and work served as an inspiration to Bob Moog whose career of innovation began by selling hand built Theremins from a basement workshop.
Happy Birthday Leon Theremin.
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