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  • 11/3/2004

Léon Theremin

(August 15, 1896–November 3, 1993)

A young Leon Theremin playing his invention

Leon Theremin (born Lev Sergeivitch Termen) was the Russian inventor of the Theremin, an electronic musical instrument.

Leon Theremin was born in Saint Petersburg. His invention in 1919 of the Thereminvox came at a time when his country was in the midst of the Russian Civil War. After a lengthy tour of Europe, during which time he demonstrated his invention to packed houses, Theremin found his way to America, where he patented his invention in 1929. Subsequently, Theremin granted commercial production rights to RCA.

Theremin returned to the Soviet Union in 1938. The circumstances of his return are unclear, with some claiming that he was simply homesick and others claiming that he was kidnapped by Soviet agents. Shortly after he returned, however, he was at Butyrka prison and later sent to work in the gold mines in Kolyma. Later he worked in a sharashka together with Tupolev, Korolev and other well-known scientists and engineers on several tasks.

Although rumors of his execution were widely circulated, Theremin was in fact put to work in a labor camp. He was rehabilitated for his services to the state seven years later.

Some have suggested that he designed the first "bug" or covert listening device but this is not exactly the case. Theremin's bug was the first to use inducted energy from radio waves of one frequency to transmit an audio signal on another. This made the device difficult to detect, as it did not radiate any signal unless it was being remotely powered and listened to, and endowed it with (potentially) unlimited operational life. This bug was embedded in a wooden plaque and presented to the American ambassador in Moscow by Russian schoolchildren. It hung in his office until detected by a professional bug sweeper using a marta kit, which happened to catch a signal from it while it was being used.

Theremin also invented the first motion detector for automated doors.

He is the subject of a documentary film, "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey".

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