The Man who Created – “The Thing”


One of the best know Inventors of Russia was a man by the name of Leon Theremin. Though this is the name he is know by, his birth name was Lev Sergeyevich Termen, his family being of German-French ancestry. His career as a inventor spans over 50 years and reads like a best selling international spy novel. During his career he would meet people like  Abram Fedorovich Ioffe and Vladimir Lenin, for whom he played one of his first inventions called the Theremin. When Lenin heard it he was so impressed he ordered their mass production and asked Theremin to give him lessons.

theremin2-430x300

In 1927 Theremin emigrated to the United States, where he patented the “Thereminvox” (1928) and contracted with RCA to market and distribute them. During the ’20s and ’30s Theremin worked in New York and associated with high society. He was then introduced to fellow Russian émigré and theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore and his instrument gained fame thanks in part to the classical performances she would put on. 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. Somewhere in the mix of all this the Soviet consulate had apparently demanded he divorce his first wife. Afterwards, while working with the American Negro Ballet Company, the inventor married a young African-American prima ballerina Lavinia Williams. Their marriage caused shock and disapproval in his social circles, but the ostracized couple remained together.

Clara&Leon

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. This is where his life starts to read like a James Bond novel. 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. During his work at the sharashka, where he was put in charge of other workers, Theremin created the Buran eavesdropping system.

Great Seal Bug

But Theremin’s greatest espionage invention is 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.

The story of his life and of the development of his electronic instruments was recounted in the 1993 documentary film Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey. Here’s a short clip of Theremin playing his own instruments.

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