Léon Theremin (born Lev Sergeyevich Termen, Russian: Лев Сергеевич Термен) (27 August [O.S. 15 August] 1896, Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire – 3 November 1993, Moscow, Russia) was a Russian and Soviet inventor. He is most famous for his invention of the theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments. He is also the inventor of interlace, a technique of improving the picture quality of a video signal, widely used in video and television technology. His invention of “The Thing”, an espionage tool, is considered a predecessor of RFID technology.
Léon Theremin was born Lev Sergeyevich Termen in Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire in 1896 into a family of French ancestry. He had a sister named Helena.
He started to be interested in electricity at the age of 7, and by 13 he was experimenting with high frequency circuits. In the seventh class of his high school before an audience of students and parents he demonstrated various optical effects using electricity.
By the age of 17 he was in his last year of high school and at home he had his own laboratory for experimenting with high frequency circuits, optics and magnetic fields. His cousin, Kirill Fedorovich Nesturkh, then a young physicist, and a singer named Wagz invited him to attend the defense of the dissertation of professor Abram Fedorovich Ioffe. Physics lecturer Vladimir Konstantinovich Lebedinskiy had explained to Theremin the then interesting dispute over Ioffe’s work on the electron. On 1913 May 9 Theremin and his cousin attended Ioffe’s dissertation defense. Ioffe’s subject was on the elementary photoelectric effect, the magnetic field of cathode rays and related investigations. In 1970 Theremin wrote that Ioffe talked of electrons, the photoelectric effect and magnetic fields as parts of an objective reality that surrounds us everyday, unlike others that talked more of somewhat abstract formula and symbols. Theremin wrote that he found this explanation revelatory and that it fit a scientific – not abstract – view of the world, different scales of magnitude, and matter. From then on Theremin endeavoured to study the Microcosm, in the same way he had studied the Macrocosm with his hand-built telescope. Later, Kyrill introduced Theremin to Ioffe as a young experimenter and physicist, and future student of the university.
Theremin recalled that while still in his last year of school, he had built a million-volt Tesla coil and noticed a strong glow associated with his attempts to ionise the air. He then wished to further investigate the effects using university resources. A chance meeting with Abram Fedorovich Ioffe led to a recommendation to see Karl Karlovich Baumgart, who was in charge of the physics laboratory equipment. Karl then reserved a room and equipment for Theremin’s experiments. Abram Fedorovich suggested Theremin also look at methods of creating gas fluorescence under different conditions and of examining the resulting light’s spectra. However, during these investigations Theremin was called up for World War I military service.
How Teremin discovered his machine
The day after Ioffe’s invitation Theremin started at the institute. He worked in diverse fields: applying the Laue effect to the new field of X-ray analysis of crystals; using hypnosis to improve measurement-reading accuracy; working with Ivan Pavlov’s laboratory; and using gas-filled lamps as measuring devices. He built a high frequency oscillator to measure the dielectric constant of gases with high precision; Ioffe then urged him to look for other applications using this method, and shortly made the first motion detector for use as a “radio watchman”.
While adapting the dielectric device by adding circuitry to generate an audio tone, Theremin noticed the pitch changed when his hand moved around. In October 1920 he first demonstrated this to Ioffe who called in other professors and students to hear. Theremin recalled trying to find the notes for tunes he remembered from when he played the cello, such as the Swan by Saint-Saëns. By November 1920 Theremin had given his first public concert with the instrument, now modified with a horizontal volume antenna replacing the earlier foot-operated volume control. He named it the “etherphone”;, to be known as the Терменвокс (Termenvox) in the Soviet Union, as the Thereminvox in Germany, and later as the “theremin” in the United States.
On May 24, 1924 Theremin married 20-year old Katia Pavlovna Konstantinova, and they lived together in his parents’ apartment on Marat street.
In 1925 Theremin went to Germany to sell both the radio watchman and Termenvox patents to the German firm Goldberg and Sons. According to Glinsky this was the Soviet’s “decoy for capitalists” to obtain both Western profits from sales and technical knowledge.
During this time Theremin was also working on a wireless television with 16 scan lines in 1925, improving to 32 scan lines and then 64 using interlacing in 1926, and he demonstrated moving, if blurry, images on June 7, 1927.
After being sent on a lengthy tour of Europe starting 1927 – including London, Paris and towns in Germany – during which he demonstrated his invention to full audiences, Theremin found his way to the United States, arriving December 30, 1927 with his first wife Katia. He performed the theremin with the New York Philharmonic in 1928. He patented his invention in the United States in 1928 and subsequently granted commercial production rights to RCA.
Theremin set up a laboratory in New York in the 1930s, where he developed the theremin and experimented with other electronic musical instruments and other inventions. These included the Rhythmicon, commissioned by the American composer and theorist Henry Cowell.
In 1930, ten thereminists performed on stage at Carnegie Hall. Two years later, Theremin conducted the first-ever electronic orchestra, featuring the theremin and other electronic instruments including a “fingerboard” theremin which resembled a cello in use.
Theremin’s mentors during this time were some of society’s foremost scientists, composers, and musical theorists, including composer Joseph Schillinger and physicist (and amateur violinist) Albert Einstein.[clarification needed] At this time, Theremin worked closely with fellow Russian émigré and theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore.
Theremin was interested in a role for the theremin in dance music. He developed performance locations that could automatically react to dancers’ movements with varied patterns of sound and light. After the Soviet consulate had apparently demanded he divorce Katia and while working with the American Negro Ballet, the inventor fell in love with and married the young prima ballerina Lavinia Williams. His marriage to the African-American dancer caused shock and disapproval in his social circles, but the ostracized couple remained together.
Return to the Soviet Union
Theremin abruptly returned to the Soviet Union in 1938. At the time, the reasons for his return were unclear; some claimed that he was simply homesick, while others believed that he had been kidnapped by Soviet officials. Beryl Campbell, one of Theremin’s dancers, said his wife Lavinia “called to say that he had been kidnapped from his studio” and that “some Russians had come in” and that she felt that he was going to be spirited out of the country.
Many years later, it was revealed that Theremin had returned to his native land due to tax and financial difficulties in the United States. However, Theremin himself told Bulat Galeyev that he decided to leave himself because he was anxious about the approaching war. Shortly after he returned he was imprisoned in the Butyrka prison and later sent to work in the Kolyma gold mines. Although rumors of his execution were widely circulated and published, Theremin was, in fact, put to work in a sharashka (a secret laboratory in the Gulag camp system), together with Andrei Tupolev, Sergei Korolev, and other well-known scientists and engineers. The Soviet Union rehabilitated him in 1956.
During his work at the sharashka, where he was put in charge of other workers, Theremin created the Buran eavesdropping system. A precursor to the modern laser microphone, it worked by using a low power infrared beam from a distance to detect the sound vibrations in the glass windows. Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the secret police organization NKVD (the predecessor of the KGB), used the Buran device to spy on the U.S., British, and French embassies in Moscow. According to Galeyev, Beria also spied on Stalin; Theremin kept some of the tapes in his flat. In 1947, Theremin was awarded the Stalin prize for inventing this advance in Soviet espionage technology.
Theremin invented another listening device called The Thing. Disguised in a replica of the Great Seal of the United States carved in wood, in 1945 Soviet school children presented the concealed bug to U.S. Ambassador as a “gesture of friendship” to the USSR’s World War II ally. It hung in the ambassador’s residential office in Moscow, and intercepted confidential conversations there during the first seven years of the Cold War, until it was accidentally discovered in 1952.
After his “release” from the sharashka in 1947, Theremin volunteered to remain working with the KGB until 1966. By 1947 Theremin had remarried, to Maria Guschina, his third wife, and they had two children: Lena and Natalia.
After working for the KGB, Theremin worked at the Moscow Conservatory of Music for 10 years where he taught and built theremins, electronic cellos and some terpsitones (another invention of Theremin). There he was discovered by Harold Schonberg, the chief music critic of The New York Times, who was visiting the Conservatory. But when an article by his hand appeared, the Conservatory’s Managing Director declared that “electricity is not good for music; electricity is to be used for electrocution” and had his instruments removed from the Conservatory. Further electronic music projects were banned, and Theremin was summarily dismissed.
In the 1970s, Léon Theremin began training his nine-year-old niece Lydia Kavina on the theremin. Kavina was to be Theremin’s last protégé. Today, Kavina is considered one of the most advanced and famous thereminists in the world.
After 51 years in the Soviet Union Theremin started travelling, first visiting France in June 1989 and then the United States in 1991, each time accompanied by his daughter Natalia. Theremin was brought to New York by filmmaker Steven M. Martin where he was reunited with Clara Rockmore. He also made a demonstration concert at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague in early 1993 before dying in Moscow in 1993 at the age of 97.
Léon Theremin is the subject of the feature length documentary film, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, written, directed, and produced by Steven M. Martin. The film won the Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994, a Golden Gate Award at The San Francisco Film Festival, was nominated for both an International Emmy and a British Academy Award, and has been presented both at the National Gallery in Washington and by invitation from the Russian Ministry of Culture at Dom Kino in Saint Petersburg, and is released in America through MGM. The film features thereminist Clara Rockmore as well as electronic instrument pioneer Robert Moog, Nicolas Slonimsky, The Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson, and Theremin himself.
Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey is widely regarded as being responsible for sparking a resurgence of interest in both Theremin and his work. After the film’s release Robert Moog, a long time champion of Theremin’s work who also appeared in the film, resumed manufacturing theremin instruments. Thousands are now sold annually around the world.
Some of Theremin’s Inventiions
Theremin – the classic Theremin (1920)
Burglar alarm, or “Signalling Apparatus” which used the Theremin effect (1920s)
Electromechanical television – Nipkow disk with mirrors instead of slots (ca. 1925)
Terpsitone – platform that converts dance movements into tones (1932)
Theremin cello – an electronic cello with no strings and no bow, using a plastic fingerboard, a handle for volume and two knobs for sound shaping (ca. 1930)
Theremin keyboard – a piano-like device (ca. 1930)
Rhythmicon – world’s first drum machine (1931)
The Buran eavesdropping device (1947 or earlier)
The Great Seal bug, also known as “The Thing” – one of the first passive covert listening devices; first used by the USSR for spying (1945 or earlier)