The inventor of the Theremin, Léon Theremin, also created one of the first covert listening devices that sat undetected for seven years in the American Embassy in Moscow

Brad Smithfield
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Regarded as one of the first ever electronic instruments, the “Theremin” is a wonder to behold. The first mass-produced instrument in the music industry can be played without being touched.

Lev Sergeyevich Termen (Russian: Лев Сергеевич Термен) (27th August 1896 – 3rd November 1993), or Léon Theremin, was a Soviet inventor, best known for his invention of the same name. Born in St. Petersburg to a family with a German ancestry, he showed a promising talent for physics at an early age. In high school, he had his very own laboratory in his home, experimenting with electricity, magnetic fields, and circuits.

Leon Theremin is demonstrating Termenvox, c. December 1927

Throughout his college years, he met the famous Soviet scientist Abram Fedorovich Ioffe and went to his dissertation. Ioffe was an established scientist, and he founded many research laboratories and institutes for radioactivity, superconductivity, and nuclear physics. Leon was fascinated with the microcosmos as well as astronomy, and from then on, he endured to study particles and their correspondence with their surroundings in mid-air.

By 1920 he experimented with oscillations in the Institute of Physical Engineering in St. Petersburg. He also worked on the first ever burglar alarm which would go off if a man approached it. It was one of the first research that introduced proximity sensor technology and its practical use.

Ioffe seminar in Polytechnical Institute, 1915. Abram Ioffe, Theremin’s mentor, is the mustached man in the center. Ioffe was an expert in electromagnetism, radiology, crystals, high-impact physics, thermoelectricity, and photoelectricity

Around 1920, Theremin constructed his famed instrument, experimenting with oscillations and particles in the air. The original invention was called the “aetherphon,” because it sounded like it produced the sounds directly from the air, but later he changed the name to “Theremin.” One of the first people who heard how the Theremin sounded like was Vladimir Lenin.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin Russian communist revolutionary, politician, political theorist, and a swell guy. The photograph of Lenin was taken in Switzerland in 1916, during his exile in the country

Lenin was greatly fascinated by the strange sounds the instrument had produced and caused quite a commotion during the post-revolutionary era of Soviet Russia. It debuted in 1924 at the Petrograd Philharmonic and Theremin was praised for his genius, never-heard-before instrument, much to the dismay of traditional violin players.

During the 1920s, Leon went to many sensational tours as well as giving lectures around Europe and Russia about the viola-like sounds of the Theremin. He had the honors of meeting Albert Einstein, who was an excellent violin player himself. The famous scientist was fascinated by the instrument, commenting: “it was an experience as significant as the one when primitive men had produced sound from a bowstring, for the first time.”

Theremin finally started to promote his magnificent instrument in New York City during Christmas in 1927. He quickly gained fame and journalists flocked to interview him about the instrument.

The journalists described him as “a modest and almost diffident physicist and not a world-famous inventor.” He decided to stay in America and met Clara Rockmore, whom he taught how to play the theremin. She would go on to be a world-class theremin player, and they would tour together.

Photograph of the famous theremin player, Clara Rockmore with Leon Theremin

In 1929, Theremin got his grant for the patent, and he ordered the RCA to mass produce it, as the first electronic instrument to be mass-produced. Sadly, after a few hundred sold theremins, the stock market crashed during the Great Depression in 1929 in October, and the need for such luxurious items decreased.

This did not stop Theremin to work extensively on his experiments and curiosities. He invented the first ever security system with automatized doors at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. In 1936, he married an African-American ballet dancer, Lavina Willaims and they stayed together despite the public opinion.

Lavinia Williams in 1955 (July 2nd, 1916 – July 19th, 1989), dancer and dance educator who founded national schools of dance in several Caribbean countries

During the 1930s era, Theremin returned to the Soviet Union in 1938. Allegedly, he was either forced by Soviet agents, the approaching war, or avoiding US tax returns. He was shortly arrested and put in a gulag, switching prisons for two times before he had moved to “Sharashka.”

Sharashka was a secret Soviet laboratory inside a gulag, which forced condemned scientists to do researches and experiments. Their work would go on to be credited to other prominent Soviet scientists, without giving credit to the real ones.

During his time in Sharashka, he managed to construct the world’s first listening device, simply called “The Thing.” It was deviously used for spying on the British, US, and French embassies in Moscow, as well as spying on Stalin.

Theremin was later awarded the Stalin Prize for his game-changing contribution to advanced espionage technology.

Sergei Korolev, a famed rocket scientist, was also imprisoned in the same gulag with Theremin. He worked as the lead Soviet rocket engineer and spacecraft designer during the cold war. Considered by many as the father of practical astronautics

The listening device was once used in a wooden replica of the Great Seal of the US, which was sent from Soviet Young Peers Organization as a gift to the US ambassador, W. Averell Harriman. The embassy didn’t suspect a thing, and the listening device remained in the replica for seven years, eavesdropping every meaningful conversation in the office, until it was accidentally discovered in 1952.

Replica of the Great Seal which contained a Soviet bugging device, on display at the NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum  Photo Credit

The Theremin also called Thereminvox, or Aetherophone consisted of a box with radio tubes which produced oscillations at two sound-wave frequencies. The pitch of the sound is controlled by moving the hand around the antenna right from the box. The instrument was famously used by The Beach Boys on their song “Good Vibrations.”

In 1988, a famous record label, Delos Records, decided to release “The Art of The Theremin,” footages of Clara Rockmore’s concerts, which was a collaboration between American filmmaker Steven M. Martin and Rockmore. To Martin’s surprise, he was told by Rockmore that the famed scientist Theremin was still alive.

The poster for Martin’s documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey Photo Credit

He was stunned and honored because he finally met the 92-year-old scientist, and Theremin himself was overjoyed to return to New York after so many years. Theremin was also pleased to be reunited with his best student, Clara Rockmore again.

Martin made a documentary about the Theremin’s history which was called Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey. In the film there are heartwarming footages of the old Russian scientist, strolling around the city, fascinated by the technologically advanced hustle and bustle of New York City and its many bright city lights.

Alexandra Stepanoff playing the theremin on NBC Radio (1930)

The theremin’s eerie sound was famously used in horror and sci-fi movies like “The Day The Earth Stood Still” and It Came From Outer Space,” producing an iconic sound which is characteristic of the sci-fi genre.

Many musicians and groups used the Theremin instrument, such as The Beach Boys in their hit song “Good Vibrations.”  The famous song is the best example for the utilization of the Theremin as a musical instrument.

Peter Theremin, Leon’s great-grandson  Photo Credit

Theremin was not financially driven with his many important inventions. Humbly stating: “But I am not old enough to worry about the money I may obtain. I am more interested at present in demonstrating my musical discovery, and I hope to test the musical preferences of the American people.”

The famous engineer and musical genius, Robert Moog, the inventor of the Moog Synthesizer. He was a fan of Theremin and managed to construct the instrument himself

He is a real example of a scientist, uncorrupted by wealth or fame. Among the theremin, the listening device, and burglar alarm, he also devised the interlace technique for improving the quality of a video signal which is still widely used today.

Read another story from us: Meet Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone

Theremin died on November 3rd, 1993, in Moscow at the old age of 97. His inventions and research have significantly contributed to various fields of physics and technology. To this day, his instrument remains as the only instrument which doesn’t require physical contact to be played.