Leon Theremin


Born: 15 August 1896
Died: 3 November 1993
Birthplace: St. Petersburg, Russia
Best known as: Inventor of the electronic musical instrument

Name at birth: Lev Sergeivich Teremen

Leon Theremin was a Russian engineer who invented the electronic musical instrument that bears his name, and his story is as strange as the music the thing produces. Leon Theremin was born in Russia and while still a teenager he began experimenting with electricity, magnetic fields and radio vacuum tubes. Eventually (from around 1917-20), Theremin developed a machine whose pitch and volume could be controlled by the movements of the performer's hands -- without touching the instrument. The instrument was demonstrated for Vladimir Lenin, who was so impressed he ordered that it be mass produced and asked Theremin to give him lessons. Theremin emigrated in 1927 to the United States, where he patented the "Thereminvox" (1928) and contracted with RCA to market and distribute the instrument. During the '20s and '30s Theremin worked in New York and associated with high society, and his instrument gained fame thanks in part to the classical performances of Clara Rockmore. In 1938 Theremin mysteriously disappeared from his New York apartment, reportedly having been spirited away by a group of Russian men, and his fate remained a mystery for many years. During that time the Theremin began to be used for movie soundtracks, where its eerie qualities came in handy; these days the sound is most commonly associated with 1950s science fiction films (and with the 1960s pop song by The Beach Boys, "Good Vibrations"). Eventually Theremin surfaced in Moscow in the 1950s; he had apparently returned to Russia voluntarily in 1938, but then had been arrested by the Soviet secret police, imprisoned for seven years and then put to work for Soviet intelligence. He spent his later years teaching at the Moscow Conservatory of Music and then (after being dismissed there) as a professor of physics at Moscow State University. He lived to see the breakup of the Soviet Union before dying in 1993. The story of Leon Theremin's life and of the development of his electronic instruments was recounted in the 1993 documentary film Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey.
Extra credit:

While in New York, Leon Theremin married Iavana Williams, an African-American ballet dancer… Theremins are still being produced today, in a variety of forms, notably by Robert Moog, inventor of electronic synthesizers… Clara Rockmore was celebrated with a Google Doodle in 2016; the Doodle featured a playable online recreation of the Theremin.

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