Good Vibrations: the musical and military instruments of Leon Theremin

December 1, 2008 After the close of WWII, Russian schoolchildren presented the U.S. ambassador with a “gesture of friendship” in the form of a two-foot wooden replica of the Seal of the United States. Behind the beak of the eagle was a miniscule listening device so ingeniously designed that it took eight years before a routine check unearthed it. The era of electronic bugs had begun, and it was largely thanks to the brilliant mind of Leon Theremin: musician, inventor, and prisoner in Stalin’s science-focused gulag.

In an interview with H.G. Wells, Stalin said “Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.” To keep scientists firmly in his grasp, and research constantly focused on harming his enemies, Stalin created a type of labor camp that became known informally as a Sharashka, where the great minds of the USSR were indefinitely detained to work on scientific projects for the state. The term Sharashka referred to “Sharashka’s Office”, slang for a poorly managed or phoney organization, but inmate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave the camp a different title, based on Dante’s description of hell: the “First Circle”. Due to the practice of attributing Sharashka research to well-known Russian scientists, many of the masterminds behind Russia’s cold war scientific breakthroughs will remain lost to history. However, by the time Stalin ordered Leon Theremin to be interred in a Sharashka, the scientist had already secured his place in the books, by giving his name to an eerie-sounding instrument that played “music from the ether.” The Theremin was one of the first electronic instruments, and its legacy can be witnessed almost every time you listen to a classic sci-fi movie or an avant-garde band.

Leon Theremin was born in 1896, and dedicated the early part of his career to exploring applications of capacitance (the amount of electrical charge able to be held by a body). When two bodies that hold electrical charge are in proximity, they create an electric field – a phenomenon Theremin used in the 1920s to create the Radio Watchman, a device that was able to identify the approach of the human body using a capacitive sensor. Theremin invented and patented the motion detector at the request of Lenin, however the inventor was far more interested in a different application of the principle. In 1922, Theremin approached Lenin with a strange looking box featuring two protruding antennas. By moving his hands near the antennas, Theremin could create sounds of varying pitch and volume. The “aetherphone”, more popularly known as the Theremin, appeared in a number of widely publicized and critically acclaimed concerts throughout Europe and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, and is immortalized in the songs of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, the movies The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Thing, and the opening theme from The Outer Limits.

Historians disagree on whether Theremin chose to return to the Soviet Union in 1938, or whether he was kidnapped by the secret police. However, once he arrived back in his homeland he was almost immediately imprisoned. Stalin encouraged the idea that Theremin had been executed, but the leader was far more interested in once again directing the talents of the musician toward surveillance. Perhaps it was because his name had already been given to the electronic instrument that Theremin’s next great invention was rather blandly called “The Thing” – but its effect on technology and international politics was immense. The Thing was the name given to the listening device placed in the wooden Seal presented to the United States ambassador in 1945. By arranging a condenser microphone next to an antenna, Theremin was able to create a simple, small device that required no power supply and only broadcasted a signal when it was activated. The Russians could eavesdrop on any conversation within audible range of the bug by directing radio waves at The Thing and picking up the reflected signals in a receiver dish.

Decades later, after securing a release from the Sharashka, Leon Theremin returned to his music. Unfortunately, he would never stir up the same amount of excitement about the Theremin and electronic music as he had done pre-war. His life’s work came to a despondent conclusion in 1957, when the Vice President of the Moscow Conservatory of Music fired him, closed his laboratory and destroyed his equipment, stating “The people don’t need electronic music. Electricity is for killing traitors in the electric chair.” However, the vibrations from his discoveries are still felt today. Once the United States discovered the properties of The Thing, they almost immediately began issuing patents of their own, incorporating Theremin’s ideas into surveillance technology, medical science, and microwave science. And since the release of a documentary in 1994, his instrument is experiencing a surge in popularity.

Related reading: The checkered history of automation.

Kyle Sherer

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