Monday, March 07, 2011

Theremin's Bug

Certain instruments, a violin, say, or a guitar, have specialized varieties which become associated with particular people, usually a performer or maker.  Think of a Stradivarius, say, or a Les Paul. It is less common for a whole family of instruments to be named after a person. The saxophone was named for its inventor Adophe Sax.  Less memorable is the sarrusophone, named for Pierre-Auguste Sarrus.

Another instrument which bears the name of its creator is the theremin.  The theremin was invented in the 1920s by the Russian Léon Theremin.  A theremin, of course, is a type of electronic music synthesizer.  A thereminist never touches the instrument during performance.  Instead there are two antennas which can sense changing distance of the performer's hands.  One hand controls pitch, the other controls volume.  Judging by a host of YouTube videos, achieving precise intonation on a theremin is not easy.  Vibrato and portamento cover many sins.

Unlike the saxophone, which has found useful employment in many different styles of music, the theremin is burdened with musical cliché.  Do you need background sounds for something otherworldly or ghostly?  Call for a theremin.  The theremin is sufficently established in our culture that it was enshrined by a Simpson's episode, The Ziff Who Came to Dinner.  (The family thinks there's a ghost in the attic, but it turns out to be disgraced tycoon Artie Ziff, Marge's high school suitor, playing Homer's old theremin.)

I discovered, via the biography Stalin by Edvard Radzinsky, that the life and other inventions of Leon Theremin were far more interesting than the music created on his namesake.  The young Theremin, after studying both music and engineering, sided with the Bolsheviks in 1917.
As a Bolshevik engineer, Theremin bombarded Lenin with ideas.  In the collected works of Lenin there is a letter to Trotsky dated April 4, 1922: "Discuss the possibility of reducing guard duties of Kremlin Kadets by introducing electric signal system.  An engineer called Theremin showed us his experiments in the Kremlin."  Theremin had invented his electrical "Radio Sentry."  It was immediately put on the secret list and installed in the State Bank.
Lenin himself played a tune on a theremin after it was introduced in 1921.  The instrument was a hit and the inventor became a rich, international star.  In the thirties Theremin also invented an electronic cello and drum machine.
People called [Theremin] a "second Trotsky" because he threatened to carry out a "world revolution in music" with his instrument.  Next, [Soviet Intelligence Director] Yagoda dispatched him in the full blaze of his glory to America, where he was to cooperate with the GPU [the Secret Police], and regularly pass on interesting information to the embassy.
So Leon Theremin was a Soviet spy.  But in 1938 Theremin was recalled to Russia and arrested.  People assumed that he had been executed.  Instead he was given a sentence of eight years.
He was quickly transferred from a normal prison camp to a sharashka.  This was one of [Stalin's] most impressive inventions: a closed research institute in which imprisoned scientists could continue their work.  Theremin helped the great Korolev and the famous Tupolev, both prisoners, to develop a radio-controlled, pilotless plane.  Then he was taken to another sharashka, where he developed a unique system of remote eavesdropping.  This system was called the "Snowstorm," and it earned its incarcerated inventor a Stalin Prize.
This eavesdropping invention is the most interesting of all.  It was a passive radio-controlled listening device.  The Soviets secretly installed it in a large replica of the Great Seal of the United States which had been carved by some Soviet boy scouts.  In 1945 this was presented to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow as a symbol of friendship.  The naive Americans hung it in the ambassador's study.  It was only discovered by accident seven years later.

The trick of Theremin's invention was that the "bug" didn't need a battery or wires.  It was completely inert until activated by precisely tuned microwaves beamed from outside.  Then it served as a radio transmitter.  Had it not been discovered it might still be working to this day.  Read more at Wikipedia  about The Thing.   More interesting is this article, The Great-Seal Bug.

Theremin's technology of snooping should be plenty familiar to all of us today.  It became the basis of RFID - Radio Frequency Identification, a common tool of modern capitalism, used for asset management, product tracking and electronic article surveillance.  Yep, the next time you accidentally walk out of the store with an item you picked up, thank Leon Theremin for the alarm which reminds you to pay.

Of course spying at U.S. Embassies in Moscow did not stop in 1952.  Here's a 1987 N.Y. Times article New U.S. Embassy in Moscow Is Said To Have Wiretaps.

There's a movie Theremin - An Electronic Odyssey, which you can watch here.

Here's a fascinating, mysterious page of Theremin info (translated from Hungarian by Mr. Google.)

Here's video of a Russian photo scanner and photo-editing software, 3 years before Photoshop 1.0 was released.

RFID Tags: . . . . . .


Elaine Fine said...

Thank you for this fantastic post!

ericnp said...

That was great! You filled in some blanks for me on the Russian side, post arrest, etc., very cool.

David Ocker said...

Thanks, guys.

Eric - there was more to the story in the Radzinsky book. He talks about meeting the elderly Theremin in Moscow, who is working away on secret things and claims he will live to be 100. Later Radzinsky learns that Theremin's apartment was vandalized, his work stolen. Disheartened, Theremin soon dies at age 97. No one knows what he was working on.

Daniel Wolf said...

Don't forget the Rhythmicon which theremin built for Henry Cowell (who wrote a concerto for it and orchestra).