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Commentary & Opinion

David Nightingale: Leon Theramin (1896-1993)

That was Leon Sergeyevich Termen (tair-MEN), better known as Lev Theramin, born in 1896 in St Petersburg [ref.1]. By the time he was 30, which would be 1926, he was demonstrating his extraordinary invention which made music simply from hand-waving, and he was being welcomed enthusiastically musicians and scientists in Germany, France, England and the US. His instrument, the theramin, was just a small-ish box of electronics, with a vertical rod looking like an antenna (but actually only a rod that was one side of a capacitor, the other side being his body.)

At the start of WW1 Lev Theramin was an 18 year old physics and astronomy student at St Peterburg University. His ancestry included lawyers and doctors from Switzerland and Germany and, way back, included Huguenots. As a teenager his lawyer father had been supportive of his learning the cello, playing it well enough for entry into the St Petersburg Conservatory -- so he was juggling classes in both physics and music.

That was 1914, the year that Germany declared war on Russia as well as the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, and Lev knew his sympathies were with the Marxists and leader Lenin rather than with the Tsars. Amazingly, by 1917, despite these upheavals he managed to complete his degree in physics, as well as his diploma from the Conservatory. From there he was sent to work at St Petersburg's newly created Physico-Technical Institute.

In his work, Lev was familiar with the new technologies pioneered in the west by Lee de Forest and Edwin Howard Armstrong. Lev, experimenting in the same fields, realized that a human body moving near to oscillating circuits containing capacitors could change things -- and using this his first invention was a burglar alarm: a person approaching one of his circuits could change a capacity and thus set off a sound. [Ref.1,p.23]

In 1921 he applied for a Russian patent, and in 1922 was invited to demonstrate his device to Lenin.

Lenin died a couple of years later, and St Petersburg was re-named Leningrad (for a short while it had been Petrograd.)  He went on to work on TV in the late 1920s, which people like John Logie Baird and others were working on in Europe and America, and in 1927 his TV experiments produced a picture of 100 lines in comparison with -- for example -- Westinghouse's 60 lines.

Lev Theramin's life in Russia, the US, Siberia, and more, is comprehensively covered in Glinsky's beautiful book "Theramin" [ref.1] --  which also has an excellent foreword by Moog. 

Theramin died in 1993, three years shy of 100.

Let's conclude with an excerpt [Utube] from the talented young German musician Carolina Eyck recently playing Faure on her theramin, with piano background.

References:

1.  "Theramin; Ether Music & Espionage" by Albert Glinsky, with Foreword by Robert Moog, 2000; Univ of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, Illinois.

2.  "Electronic Musician", Feb, 1996 (pp 86-100). This article gives the DIY decription of how to make a theramin.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at NewPaltz and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

 
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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