Pioneering Russian inventor Léon Theremin was born Lev Sergeyevich Termen in Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire in 15 August 1896 into a family of French and German 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 frequencircuits, 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 9 May 1913 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 1917 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.Despite Theremin being only in his second academic year, the deanery of the Faculty of Physics and Astronomy recommended him to go to the Nikolayevska Military Engineering School in Petrograd (renamed from Saint Petersburg), which usually only accepted students in their fourth year. Theremin recalled Ioffe reassured him that the war would not last long and that military experience would be useful for scientific applications.
Beginning his military service in 1916, Theremin finished the Military Engineering School in six months, progressed through the Graduate Electronic School for Officers, and attained the military radio-engineer diploma in the same year. In the course of the next three and a half years he oversaw the construction of a radio station in Saratov to connect the Volga area with Moscow, graduated from Petrograd University, became deputy leader of the new Military Radiotechnical Laboratory in Moscow, and finished as the broadcast supervisor of the radio transmitter at Tsarskoye Selo near Petrograd (then renamed Detskoye Selo).
During the Russian civil war, in October 1919 White Army commander Nikolai Nikolayevich Yudenich advanced on Petrograd from the side of Detskoye Selo, apparently intending to capture the radio station to announce a victory over the Bolsheviks. Theremin and others evacuated the station, sending equipment east on rail cars. Theremin then detonated explosives to destroy the 120 meter-high antennae mast before traveling to Petrograd to set up an international listening station. There he also trained radio specialists but reported difficulties obtaining food and working with foreign experts who he described as narrow-minded pessimists. Theremin recalled that on an evening when his hopes of overcoming these obstructing experts reached a low ebb, Abram Fedorovich Ioffe telephoned him.[Ioffe asked Theremin to come to his newly founded Physical Technical Institute in Petrograd, and the next day he invited him to start work at developing measuring methods for high frequency electrical oscillations.
The day after Ioffe’s invitation, Theremin started at the institute. He worked in diverse fields: applying the Laue effect to the new field ofX-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. Theremin went to Germany in 1925 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 7 June 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 on 30 December 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 theoristHenry 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 composerJoseph Schillinger and physicist (and amateur violinist) Albert Einstein. 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.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 once 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 British, French and US 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 theGreat 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 was a Professor of Physics at Moscow State University (Department of Acoustics) developing his inventions and supervising graduate students. 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, Russia in 1993.