BULL STREET - The art of the Con

The Thing

Leon Sergeivitch Termen, born in St. Petersberg in 1896, is today known as the inventor of electronic music.  In 1917 he introduced his first Therminvox, better known as Theremin, in the USSR.  After Lenin heard this mysterious instrument at the Moscow Industrial Fair in 1920 he not just requested private lessons, but also produced 600 Theremins.  In the following 7 years he send Leon Termin all over the USSR and Czechoslovakia to promote is unique invention and to establish his reputation.  In 1927 Leon Termin  arrived in New York after spending several month in London.  By than he was already widely known and only one year later, in 1928 he was granted a US patent for the Therminvox.  Prof. Termin spent the following 8 years in New York, living the rather extravagant but non the less unsuspicious life of an eccentric.  In 1938 he suddenly left New York to return to the USSR.  Termin biographers seem to promote the idea that he was kidnapped out of his apartment by the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB.  The CIA however, now knows, backed by Soviet Union admission, that Leon Termin left New York, voluntarily, on a departing AMTORC freighter.  AMTORC, the American Trading Corporation, was a Russian front company, mainly operating as a contact for Russian spies in the US.  In 1938 Leon Termin was certainly not unknown to them   Prior to his rather sudden departure, he used his carefully established reputation and his technical understanding to collect detailed information on granted and pending US patents, sending them all the while to the USSR.  Once he returned, to the now Stalin run Soviet Union, he spend one year in a KGB Gulug in Siberia.  In 1939 he was moved to a Sharashka, a prison camp around a government institution, where he started work on his truly ground braking and unique cold-war invention

Leon Teremin, who had worked with electromagnetic fields, capacitance, and induction all his life, developed a light bulb that would respond to vibrations, by the use of a gas rather sensitive to capacitance.  Since it seemed difficult to smuggle a light bulb into the US embassy, and since the average life span of a light bulb was to too short to guarantee ongoing transmission, he then revised the light bulb until he developed the passive resonator cavity.

In 1947 a group of Russian boy scouts appeared at the US embassy in Moscow, under the auspices of presenting the American ambassador with a woodcarving of the US emblem.  After thoroughly checking it for possible bugs, usually microphones, wired to recording devices at a location nearby, the ambassador proudly hung it onto his office wall.  Little did he know that embedded in the emblem, was Theremin’s latest invention - a 9” long and 11/16” wide metal bar connected to a tuned cavity, which was designed to  reveal American secrets to the Soviets.  The device, activated by a 330 MHz microwave beam, picked up vibrations from voices in the room.  The vibrations altered the capacitance of the circuit in the tuned cavity, which modulated the 330 MHz microwave beam.  On the receiving end the fluctuation in the beam was simply transduced back to sound, therewith transmitting every conversation, word by word, without the use of a physical wire.


Given the novelty and uniqueness of the device, it was not detected until 1952.  By than it had become obvious, that the Soviets were listening in on conversations in the American ambassador’s office.  A team of technicians searched every inch of the office for bugs without success since, without the microwave beam activated, there were no active components in Teremin’s device.  As usual, the American Counter-Espionage personnel were searching for devices using known technology, meaning some kinds of wires, batteries, and recording devices.  After the latest of many fruitless searches, the technicians left the office, except for one, who hid on the floor. After the team left however, not realizing that one technician had remained in the room, the Soviets reactivated the microwave beam which was then picked up by the hidden American agent.  With the help of a signal strength meter, he was able to trace the signal back to the wall that held the woodcarving.    Since nobody expected a bug as small as the cavity, agents started tarring down the wall.  They found nothing.  It wasn’t until then, that they decided to examine the woodcarving.  Sure enough, the cavity was found and for a lack of words it was called “The Thing”.

“The Thing” was examined and studied by the Americans without success.  Finally it was sent to England where Peter Right started bombarding it with a variety of Radio Frequencies.  Eventually he received a harmonic of the 330 MHz signal, thereby finally solving the riddle. 

But Teremin didn’t stop there.  After the “The Thing” was detected, he started developing more sophisticated listening and bugging devices for the KGB.   His last known invention picked up vibrations by sending an infrared beam to a window, modulating the beam via the vibrations from voices in the room, and bouncing the now modulated infrared beam back to a detector for conversion back to sound, a technology that has been used and further developed ever since.



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