One of the more interesting displays in Arizona’s Musical Instrument Museum centers around an extremely odd instrument called the “theramin”.
Leon Sergeyevich Theramin was an electrical engineering student at the University of Petrograd when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917. During the subsequent Civil War, he worked for the Red Army developing a proximity detector. The device was based on the interaction of electrical fields and could sense the presence of a nearby human and produce a high-pitched whine as an alarm. Thinking that it could perform duty as a “radio sentry”, Theramin demonstrated his device to Lenin, who ordered the system to be installed at the State Bank.
As he tested the device, however, Theramin had also noticed that he could vary the sound by moving his hand closer to or further away from the antenna. Theramin was also a music student and an accomplished cellist, and he began to amuse himself by playing simple songs. After a while, he built a new version specifically as a musical instrument, which he named the “aetherphone”. It would become better-known as the theramin.
The theramin consists of a wooden box full of glass vacuum tubes that looks like a radio receiver with two antennae. One of these controls the pitch, which can be varied by moving one hand, while the other antenna controls the volume, which is changed by moving the other hand. The electrical field of the performer’s own body interacts with the electrical fields generated by the theramin and, by a process known as “heterodyning” this produces an audible tone which sounds like an electronic whining.
By 1920, Theramin had written several classical-style orchestral compositions featuring his new instrument and had begun doing stage performances (including a show for Lenin and other prominent Communist Party officials). Audiences were fascinated: Theramin seemed to be conjuring up magical music simply by waving his hands in the air. In 1927, he went on a concert tour of Europe and the United States, and set up a studio in New York City where he was regularly visited by Albert Einstein, who was an enthusiastic amateur violinist. Theramin soon obtained an American patent and approached the radio giant RCA about manufacturing his instrument. RCA dubbed it the “Theraminvox”. It turned out to be a commercial failure: the instrument was hard to learn and difficult to play well, and the 1929 stock market crash and Great Depression largely squelched the musical instruments industry.
Unknown to everyone, however, Theramin had an additional secret reason for visiting the United States: ever since his days of working on a radio proximity detector, Theramin had been working for the Soviet intelligence services, and had specifically targeted RCA for industrial espionage. Tsarist Russia had been a hopelessly backwards agrarian country which still lived with century-old technology, and the new Soviet Union hoped to quickly develop a modern industrial economy and catch up to the West. Theramin’s assignment was to learn as much as he could about American radio technology and production methods so they could be copied by the USSR.
When Theramin returned to the Soviet Union in 1938, however, the political atmosphere had become dangerous. With war clouds already on the horizon, Joseph Stalin had become paranoid and suspicious, and launched a series of political purges to rid himself of any possible opposition. Thousands of potential “enemies of the state” and “counter-revolutionaries” were rounded up and either shot after show trials or exiled to prison camps in Siberia.
Theramin, as someone who had spent a lot of time in the West, fell under Stalin’s suspicious eye and was arrested, sentenced to eight years, and sent to a special prison (called a sharashka) for scientists who were not trusted by the Party but who might still be able to do useful work for the regime. He was assigned to use his skills as an electrical engineer to work with the also-imprisoned Russian aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev and the rocket engineer Sergei Korolev to help develop a radio-controlled remotely-piloted drone.
Theramin’s greatest opportunity, though, came in 1945. Although the US and USSR had been allies against Nazi Germany, with the end of the Second World War came the Cold War, and there was already mistrust between the two. So as a presumed goodwill gesture, a group of Soviet Young Pioneers (the Communist Party youth league) had presented American Ambassador Averell Harriman with a large wooden carving of the Great Seal of the United States, and the Ambassador, after several scans by American intelligence officers revealed nothing inside, placed it on the wall of his study at home.
But the Seal contained a secret. Hidden inside a tiny compartment was an ingenious device that had been designed in prison by Theramin. “The Thing”, as it later became known by the CIA, was a simple hollow chamber with a flexible diaphragm at its front. Whenever there was sound inside the room, the diaphragm would vibrate to form a tiny speaker, and a beam of microwave waves could then be used to detect these vibrations and electronically convert them back into sounds, allowing the Russians to listen in. The device was only activated periodically by the Soviets using a burst of carefully-tuned microwave signals. “The Thing” emitted no signals of its own and, because it had no battery, no metal parts or wires, and no active radio transmitter, it could not be detected by the American anti-surveillance equipment. The device went undetected, transmitting all of the Ambassador’s conversations to the Soviets, until 1951, when a British spy happened to hear a conversation from the American Ambassador while monitoring a Soviet radio frequency. After a thorough sweep, the American CIA found “The Thing” embedded inside the Great Seal plaque.
Theramin adapted a similar principle into another spy system that he called “The Snowstorm”. This used a beam of infrared energy (and later low-powered lasers) that was aimed at a glass window in a targeted building. Like the flexible diaphragm inside The Thing, the window would vibrate according to the sounds that were produced inside, and the Snowstorm was able to read these vibrations and convert them into sound, allowing eavesdroppers to hear everything going on inside. Theramin was awarded a Stalin Prize for this work.
In the United States, meanwhile, Theramin’s odd musical instrument had become something of a cult object in the United States. Hollywood found it to be the perfect method for creating eerie or spooky soundtracks for sci-fi or horror films, and the familiar “woo-eeh-woo” sound became a staple. Alfred Hitchcock used a theramin in his 1945 film “Spellbound” (the score won an Oscar), as did the classic 1950s hits “The Day The Earth Stood Still”, “It Came From Outer Space”, and “The Ten Commandments”. By the 1960s, musical groups like Led Zepplin and the Rolling Stones were experimenting with it. A sound engineer named Robert Moog developed a transistorized version of the theramin (a similar knockoff called the Electro-Theramin was featured in the Beach Boys hit “Good Vibrations”), then went on to make the MOOG Synthesizer which revolutionized pop music in the 1970s.
Theramin was released from prison in 1947 and became a professor at the University of Moscow. He also continued to work for Soviet intelligence while he once again took up efforts to popularize his musical instrument. In the tightly-controlled and hermetically-sealed world of the Soviet Union, he was not aware of the cultural impact his theramin had already had in the US until 1991 when, just as the USSR was collapsing, he was able to visit the United States again.
Theramin died in Moscow in 1993, at the age of 97.