Have you ever heard that high pitched warbling noise from the old suspense movies that almost sounds like a flimsy saw vibrating to make music? I know how it was once made. And at the time, it was curiously sensational! Leon Theremin was a Soviet inventor from the early 20th century. A young prodigy in science (especially electricity) Theremin made most of his major discoveries by accident. While working on dielectric device (one of the first motion detectors by the way) he noticed that the pitch changed on the antenna when he moved his hand around. He had made one of the world’s first electronic musical devices! An instrument you play without touching it!
He named this the “etherphone”, then the Termenvox, and then simply the Theremin. He toured the world playing this curious sounding instrument which became widely popular in the 1920’s and 30’s producing Theremin aficionado Clara Rockmore. Then, in 1937, Theremin disappeared. Some say he was deported, others that he was kidnapped (recent evidence says he had financial difficulties in the US, but I find that hard to believe) but the truth was he was gone without word. The curious fact that this was at the start of World War II might have definitely had something to do with it.
Strangely, something odd of Theremin’s did show up again some years later. This time, it had nothing to do with music at all. In 1945, the Great Seal of the United States was given as a peace offering from Soviet children to the US ambassador at the time. Embedded in this seal was a curious little device that eavesdropped on the conversations of important US officials for over 7 years! It was finally discovered on accident and was dubbed “The Thing” since it was so advanced that no one knew how it worked! However, if it had remained undiscovered, this device could have lasted indefinitely!
In the last years of his life, Theremin continued to promote his curious electronic musical instruments including the Theremin cello, a piano, and the Rythmicon (which unfortunately did not work). Since many musicians of the 60’s and 70’s thought of electrocution when they saw an electrical instrument, he was dismissed and almost forgotten.
But his fame will always be summed up by two very curiously wonderful devices which had two very different intentions.