The man who invented the first electric musical instrument
On the 15th of August, 1896, Lev Sergeyevich Termen was born in Saint Petersburg, of the Russian Empire.
By the age of 17, he had his own laboratory at home for experimenting with high-frequency circuits, optics and magnetic fields. His cousin, Kirill Fedorovich Nesturkh, then a young physicist, invited him to attend the defense of the dissertation of Abram Fedorovich Ioffe. Physics lecturer Vladimir Konstantinovich Lebedinskiy had explained to Theremin the dispute over Ioffe’s work on the electron.
On 9 May 1913 Theremin and his cousin attended Ioffe’s dissertation defense. Ioffe’s subject was on the elementary photoelectric effect, the magnetic field of cathode rays and related investigations. In 1917 Theremin wrote that Ioffe talked of electrons, the photoelectric effect and magnetic fields as parts of an objective reality that surrounds us everyday, unlike others that talked more of somewhat abstract formula and symbols. Theremin wrote that he found this explanation revelatory and that it fit a scientific – not abstract – view of the world, different scales of magnitude, and matter. From then on Theremin endeavoured to study the microcosm, in the same way he had studied the macrocosm with his hand-built telescope.
Despite Theremin being only in his second academic year, the deanery of the Faculty of Physics and Astronomy recommended him to go to the Nikolayevska Military Engineering School in Petrograd (renamed from Saint Petersburg), which usually only accepted students in their fourth year. Theremin recalled that Ioffe reassured him that the war would not last long and that military experience would be useful for scientific applications
Later a chance meeting with Abram Fedorovich Ioffe led to a recommendation to see Karl Karlovich Baumgart, who was in charge of the physics laboratory equipment. Karl then reserved a room and equipment for Theremin’s experiments. However Theremin was called up for World War I military service.
After the war Ioffe asked Theremin to come to his newly founded Physical Technical Institute in Petrograd, and the next day he invited him to start work at developing measuring methods for high-frequency electrical oscillations.
The next day, Theremin started at the institute. He worked in diverse fields: applying the Laue effect to the new field of X-ray analysis of crystals; using hypnosis to improve measurement-reading accuracy; working with Ivan Pavlov’s laboratory; and using gas-filled lamps as measuring devices. He built a high-frequency oscillator to measure the dielectric constant of gases with high precision; Ioffe then urged him to look for other applications using this method, and shortly made the first motion detector for use as a “radio watchman”.
While adapting the dielectric device by adding circuitry to generate an audio tone, Theremin noticed that the pitch changed when his hand moved around. In October 1920 he first demonstrated this to Ioffe who called in other professors and students to hear. Theremin recalled trying to find the notes for tunes he remembered from when he played the cello, such as the Swan by Saint-Saëns. By November 1920 Theremin had given his first public concert with the instrument, now modified with a horizontal volume antenna replacing the earlier foot-operated volume control. He named it the “etherphone”, to be known as the Терменвокс (Termenvox) in the Soviet Union, as the Thereminvox in Germany, and later as the “theremin” in the United States.
Here are some examples of what the Theremin would help musicians produce.
Lev Sergeyevich Termen was pass in Moscow at the age of 97 on November 3rd, 1993.
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