Geek Of The Week: Leon Theremin

Geek Of The Week: Leon Theremin

Leon Theremin invented the musical instrument which bears his name in 1920. It was a revolutionary invention. The instrument had two antennas, one horizontal and the other vertical. The latter controlled pitch and the former controlled volume. Musicians would play it by changing the proximity of their hands in relation to the antennas. By moving both hands in specific patterns one could create melodies. It is one of the few instruments that can be played without physical touch. Interestingly enough, this early electronic instrument still sounds futuristic today. Just imagined what it sounded almost 100 years ago. The Theremin was way ahead of its time.

After creating a prototype, Russian-born Theremin went on a tour of Europe to show off his invention throughout the late-1920’s. Eventually he moved to the US and was able to market the Theremin in America, something he had trouble doing in Russia. He patented the instrument in 1928 and RCA manufactured the early models. Thermin also trained several performers on the instrument so they could help market it for him. Alas, in 1938 he abruptly returned to his homeland and left his business behind. Some say he was forced to return by the KGB, while others claim Thermin was simply homesick. Whatever the reason, after returning to Russia, Theremin was imprisoned briefly, then hired by the Russian government. He did not return to the US until 1991. Thermin passed away in 1993 at the age of 97.

Ironically, former GOTW Robert Moog started his career by selling DIY Thermin kits. Today, Moog Music still sells Theremins and there is an electronic music subculture that avidly collects them. Believe it or not, they even still sell a DIY Theremin kit. There’s no doubt Leon Theremin invented an instrument that has fascinated audiences for almost a century. Undoubtedly, its legacy will last for many years to come. Now we posthumously declare this musical inventor to be our 362nd GOTW.

About the Author

avatar KALE: A geek who works in the IT Security field and lives in Dallas, TX. He is also a music geek who has played in several local bands. Previous to his IT career, Kale worked as a photojournalist. He brings technical advice and artistic counterpoint to the podcast.