The ‘Synthetic Tone’ Sewall Cabot, USA, 1918

Patent documents of Cabot's Synthetic Tone Instrument

Patent documents of Cabot’s Synthetic Tone Instrument

The ‘Synthetic Tone’ was an electro-mechanical instrument similar but much smaller to the Choracello designed by the Brookline, Massachusetts electrical engineer Sewall Cabot (Cabot, Quincy Sewall b: 4 SEP 1901 in New York d: MAR 1957 in New York). The instrument created complex tones by resonating metal bars with a tone-wheel generated electromagnetic charge.

“One object of my present invention is to provide an improved musical instrument of relatively small cost and small dimensions in comparison to those of a pipe-organ, but capable of attaining all the musically useful results of which a pipe-organ is capable. Another object is to provide an instrument that will produce desirable tonal effects not heretofore obtainable from a pipe-organ.”

Sewal Cabot Patent documents


Early Electronic Music Instruments: Time Line 1899-1950.Curtis Roads Computer Music Journal Vol. 20, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 20-23 Published by: The MIT Press

Robb Wave Organ. Morse Robb. Canada. 1927


The Robb Wave Organ designed by Morse Robb in Belleville, Ontario was said to be  musically superior to the Hammond Organ. The instrument attempted to reproduce the sound of a cathedral pipe organ by amplifying sounds generated by a similar tone-wheel mechanism. Prototype models were created in 1927 and the production model came on the market in 1936 and remained available until 1941.


A newspaper article on  the organ-printed almost ten years before it became available-was headlined: “Young Canadian Invents Pipeless Ethereal Organ” (Toronto Star, 1927). The Robb Wave Organ was more expensive than other electronic organs, and sales suffered because of the Depression and World War II. With only thirteen units sold, the company ceased operation in 1941. The Museum has preserved prototype and final tone wheels and drums from Mr Robb’s workshop.

Michael J. Murphy professor RTA School of Media talks about the Robb Wave Organ



Canada Science and Technology Museum

The ‘Choralcelo’ Melvin Severy & George.B. Sinclair. USA, 1909

The Choralcelo (“heavenly Voices”) was a hybrid electronic and electro-acoustic instrument conceived as a commercial high-end domestic organ, sold to wealthy owners of large country houses in the USA. The Choralcelo was designed and developed by Melvin Severy with the assistance of his brother in law George B. Sinclair and manufactured by the ‘Choralcelo Manufacturing Co’ in Boston, Massachusetts.
Melvin Severy b.1863 Melrose, Mass; d. California 1951

Melvin Severy b.1863 Melrose, Mass; d. California 1951 

Severy was a versatile inventor, engineer musician, composer and author. Before the Choralcelo, Severy’s inventions already included patents for printing presses, solar heating systems, a camera, fluid drives, and many others.The Choralcelo was developed by Severy from 1888 until 1909 when it was first presented to the public in Boston, Mass. The company was taken over in 1918 by Farrington. C. Donahue & A. Hoffman (in some reports claimed as its inventor). At least six of the instruments were sold and continued to be used up unit the 1950′s. Two working examples of the instruments are known to have survived in the USA one at Ruthmere Mansion in Elkhart, Indiana.The Choralcelo was a direct contemporary of the Telharmonium, though not as big, was still a huge instrument using a similar electromagnetic tone wheel sound generation to the Telharmonium used in the ‘organ’ section of the instrument as well as a set of electromagnetically operated piano strings.
Choralcelo at Denver Collorado

Part of a Choralcelo at Denver Collorado


The visible part of the Choralcelo consisted of two keyboards, the upper (piano) keyboard having 64 keys and the lower 88 (piano and ‘organ’), controlling the invisible part of the instrument, usually in the basement of the house, consisting of 88 tone wheels and a set of piano strings and bells that were vibrated by electromagnets and a set of hammers. The keyboards also had a set of organ style stops to control the timbre and fundamentals of the tone that could then be passed through cardboard, hardwood, softwood, glass, steel or “bass-buggy” spring resonators to give the sound a particular tone.The Choralcelo also incorporated a pianola style paper roll mechanism for playing ‘pre-recorded’ music and a 32 note pedal board system. The entire machine could occupy two basements of a house, the keyboards and ‘loudspeakers’ being the only visible part of the instrument.

Promotional brochure from the  Choralcelo Manufacturing Co

Detailed History of the Choralcelo from “History Of the Choralcelo” by W.Jenkins

“The information furnished is based on forty years of acquaintance with the instrument, and on three complete Choralcelo instruments at hand, friendship with one of the principals, interviews with others involved in the work, family members, original blueprints, all the patents issued, (and there were many) and original documents from the archives. “

“The story of the Choralcelo is largely the story of two men… Melvin L. Severy, born in 1863 in Melrose, Mass; died in California in 1951; and Wilber E. Farrington, born 1869, died 1945. Severy was a brilliantly gifted, multi-faceted inventor who secured patents on a printing press, solar heating, a camera, fluid drive, and many others, besides the Choralcelo. He was a scholar, artist, musical composer, and author. His grandson recalls that he was interested in secret passages in the pyramids, to name one of his many interests.Severy was assisted in his experimentation by his brother-in-law, George B. Sinclair. They had married Flint sisters. Wilber Farrington was an idealistic, philosophic visionary who devoted the majority of hsi life to his love of the unique tone of the novel instrument and his determination to see it successfully developed and manufactured. He was a charismatic and effective fund raiser and invested his own fortune in the work.There had been many efforts at strengthening or lengthening the tone of piano strings electrically.

Remains of a Choralcelo at the National Music Museum, Vermilion Sands, South Dakota

Remains of a Choralcelo at the National Music Museum, Vermilion Sands, South Dakota

As early as 1876, Elisha Gray had patented a single note oscillator; and in 1890 Eli C. Ohmart filed a patent on prolonging the tone of piano strings electromagnetically… the patent was assigned to Melvin Severy.The principle being worked on was simple… magnets were placed behind the strings of the piano, and accurately timed pulses of DC current were fed to the magnets coinciding with the natural periodicity of the strings.. for example, if note A vibrated at 440 vibrations per second, then 440 pulses of current per second would be fed to the magnets for that note, and sustained organ-like tone would be produced without the use of the hammers. The mechanism which accomplished this was the interruptor, powered by a small electric motor, which had nine brass cylinders 3 1/2″ long spinning at predetermined speeds. Each cylinder had eight make and break tracks 1/4 inch wide, alternate spaces being set in an enamel, a non-conductor. Sterling silver brushes rode on these tracks. The lowest notes required about 20 pulses per second, and the highest, about two thousand. The overwhelmingly difficult part was the governing of this device… the very slightest deviation and the frequency of the pulses would not coincide with the natural periodicity of the strings, and the tone will die. Patent after patent was filed for variations on governing mechanisms, some of them so elaborate that they were complicated mechanisms in themselves.

The basic concept of tone production, though simple, proved nearly impossible in execution… matching, on one side, an already tuned vibrating body, with perfectly matching pulses of magnetism, ranging anywhere from 20 vibrations per second to 2,000. The governing device controlling the speed of the make and break cylinders would not only have to provide such absolute perfection whenever called for, but would also have to be able to compensate for the vagaries of the electric current generated in that day, which powered the motor the drove the governor… to do this, it would have to be able to keep the cylinders rotating without the slightest deviation even if the motor driving the assembly slowed down or speeded up. If the speed of the cylinders changed while the instrument was being played, the tone would die out.

Remains of a Choralcelo at the National Music Museum, Vermilion Sands, South Dakota

Remains of a Choralcelo at the National Music Museum, Vermilion Sands, South Dakota

An elegantly simple, brilliant magnetic combination governor and clutch evolved, which performed perfectly without physical contact, so there could be no overheating, and there were no clutch pads or other friction assemblies to wear out. Even today it is a marvel of brilliant application of principles of physics , and a marvel at least to those who are aware of what they are seeing to watch the spinning copper band drive the heavy flywheel merely by cutting through the invisible magnetic force. It is so disarmingly simple one could have no inkling of the years of labor which preceded it. Appreciating what it represents, I still have a feeling of awe. I doubt there has ever been anything like it, before or since. It was through the many mechanisms Severy labored over and patented in his determination to solve the problem that fluid drive evolved. The first concert was given in 1905, and was by invitation. The Choralcelo of that first phase of development was an impressive upright piano with one keyboard, usually with a roll player; the case of the finest grain mahogany with beautifully hand-carved openwork scroll panels. The tone could be varied by means of a slider near the left hand. It was the first tone produced without physical contact of some kind, and the tones produced invoked orchestral instruments minus the sound of the bow on the string or the breath of the flutist.


Development continued and a two manual instrument marked the second level, or phase, of the evolution of the Choralcelo. It still had the piano keyboard and piano strings which were excited by magnets. The piano strings were tuned by means of screws to attain greater stability. There was an organ keyboard above the first one, and a row of stops to control the range of tone units. These took the form of sets of tuned bars, or plates, which could be of steel, or wood, or aluminum, or sometimes glass. There were usually 41 to a set, and typically they varied in length from 5 3/4″ to 10 1/2″, and usually were about 5/16″ thick. Materials other than steel had small iron armatures affixed so that there would be response to the magnets.


Installed directly over these bars were resonating chambers, usually cylindrical fiber tubes, open at each end, which reinforced the tone, just as one sees in marimbas and vibraharps, The tone production was entirely acoustic; there was nothing electronic about the Choralcelo… no amplifiers, no loud speakers, no tubes… nothing of the sort. These sets of bars were remote from the main console and could be placed anywhere. The switching and control devices were remote from the main console and could be contained in two cabinets, each about 5 1/2′ high, and installed in the basement, along with the interrupter mechanism and motor-generator which delivered 30 volts of DC. The bar units could also be installed in the basement if desired, in which case grillwork was installed in the floor above them to transmit the sound; or they could be installed in the music room where the console was and concealed behind panelling or whatever was desired. The units were all connected by cables, usually armored with interwoven wire strands to protect them from damage. If all the machinery and also the bar units were to be placed in the basement, the space required would be approximately that of a modest bedroom.


The final phase of the development of the Choralcelo was the rewiring of the controls so that upper partials could be at the command of the Choralcelist and thus the potential of the instrument was greatly expanded because infinite variations and combinations were now available. The attempt to produce a completely new, unique instrument of this complexity in such a short period of time… the original factory closed in 1917 because of the war… was a monumental undertaking, and the multiplicity of the directions one might take was daunting. After all, the piano metamorphosed over several centuries, and other instruments have done the same. Experiments were conducted with reeds. A magnificent, large double bass unit having steel ribbons instead of individual strings was developed… there was a remote full-sized string unit which could be remotely placed… A variation of the interrupter mechanism was developed using brass discs instead of the earlier cylinders. There were twelve discs, each with six tracks, rotating at speeds determined by the gearing. All of these inventions, some of which were superseded by later ones, required designing, engineering, machining.. the investment was astronomical. In today’s money it amounted to many hundreds of millions of dollars. The instruments themselves were expensive, by today’s standards costing about a half million.

There were about one hundred built, many of them being installed in the music rooms of the wealthy. There were some that were in theatres to accompany silent films… Filene’s in Boston had two, one in the restaurant. Lord and Taylor in New York, and Marshall Field in Chicago, among others, featured Choralcelos, as did several hotels. There were even two on yachts.

The effort was a daunting task but great strides had been made by the time WWI broke out… materials were no longer available and as a result, the factory closed. Farrington and several of the most devoted men involved remained active in several locations, Cleveland, Chicago, Port Chester, Connecticut, and New York among them. The last activity was a demonstration studio in New York City, but another world war broke out and the studio closed in 1942.”

Choralcelo Patent Files

The ‘Audion Piano’ and Audio Oscillator. Lee De Forest. USA, 1915

De Forest playing the Audion Piano

De Forest playing the Audion Piano

Lee De Forest , The self styled “Father Of Radio” ( the title of his 1950 autobiography) inventor and holder of over 300 patents, invented the triode electronic valve or ‘Audion valve’ in 1906- a much more sensitive development of John A. Fleming’s diode valve. The immediate application of De Forest’s triode valve was in the emerging radio technology of which De Forest was a tenacious promoter. De Forest also discovered that the valve was capable of creating audible sounds using the “heterodyning”/beat frequency technique: a way of creating sounds by combining two high frequency signals to create a composite lower frequency within audible range and in so doing inadvertently invented the first true audio oscillator that paved he way for future electronic instruments and music.

Lee De Forest's Triode Valve of 1906

Lee De Forest’s Triode Valve of 1906

De Forest Created the ‘Audion Piano’, the first vacuum tube instrument in 1915 based on earlier audio experiments in 1907 and by using his invention of the triode tube as an audio oscillator  had laid the blueprint for most future electronic instruments until the emergence of transistor technology some fifty year later. The Audion Piano was the first instrument to use a beat-frequency or “heterodyning” oscillator system and also the first to use body capacitance to control pitch and timbre ( The heterodyning effect was later much exploited by the Leon Termen with his Theremin series of instruments and Maurice Martenot’s Ondes-Martenot amongst many others. ). The Audion Piano, controlled by a single keyboard manual, used a single triode valve per octave controlled by a set of keys allowing one monophonic note to be played per octave. This audio signal could be processed by a series of capacitors and resistors to produce variable and complex timbres and the output of the instrument could be sent to a set of speakers placed around a room giving the sound a novel spatial effect. De Forest planned a later version of the instrument that would have separate valves per key allowing full polyphony- it is not known if this instrument was ever constructed.
De Forest described the Audio Piano as capable of producing:

“Sounds resembling a violin, Cello, Woodwind, muted brass and other sounds resembling nothing ever heard from an orchestra or by the human ear up to that time – of the sort now often heard in nerve racking maniacal cacophonies of a lunatic swing band. Such tones led me to dub my new instrument the ‘Squawk-a-phone’….The Pitch of the notes is very easily regulated by changing the capacity or the inductance in the circuits, which can be easily effected by a sliding contact or simply by turning the knob of a condenser. In fact, the pitch of the notes can be changed by merely putting the finger on certain parts of the circuit. In this way very weird and beautiful effects can easily be obtained.”
(Lee De Forest’s Autobiography “The Father Of Radio”)

And From a 1915 news story on a concert held for the National Electric Light Association

“Not only does de Forest detect with the Audion musical sounds silently sent by wireless from great distances,but he creates the music of a flute, a violin or the singing of a bird by pressing button. The tune quality and the intensity are regulated by the resistors and by induction coils…You have doubtless heard the peculiar, plaintive notes of the Hawaiian ukulele, produced by the players sliding their fingers along the strings after they have been put in vibration. Now, this same effect,which can be weirdly pleasing when skilfully made, can he obtained with the musical Audion.”

Advert for De Forest wireless equipment

Advert for De Forest wireless equipment

De Forest, the tireless promoter, demonstrated his electronic instrument around the New York area at public events alongside fund raising spectacles of his radio technology. These events were often criticised and ridiculed by his peers and led to a famous trial where De Forest was accused of misleading the public for his own ends:
“De Forest has said in many newspapers and over his signature that it would be possible to transmit human voice across the Atlantic before many years. Based on these absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the misguided public … has been persuaded to purchase stock in his company. “
Lee De Forest, August 26, 1873, Council Bluffs, Iowa. Died June 30, 1961

Lee De Forest, August 26, 1873, Council Bluffs, Iowa. Died June 30, 1961

De Forest collaborated with a sceptical Thadeus Cahill in broadcasting early concerts of the Telharmonium using his radio transmitters (1907). Cahill’s insistence on using the telephone wire network to broadcast his electronic music was a major factor in the demise of the Telharmonium. Vacuum tube technology was to dominate electronic instrument design until the invention of transistors in the 1960′s. The Triode amplifier also freed electronic instruments from having to use the telephone system as a means of amplifying the signal.


Lee De Forest “Father Of Radio” (Autobiography).
Wireless: From Marconi’s Black-Box to the Audion (Transformations: Studies in the History of Science and Technology) 2001 author(s) Sungook Hong
Lee de Forest: King of Radio, Television, and Film 2012. Mike Adams (auth.).
Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage. By Albert Glinsky
Electronic Music. Nicholas Collins, Margaret Schedel, Scott Wilson
Media Parasites in the Early Avant-Garde: On the Abuse of Technology and Communication. Arndt Niebisch 2012
Electric Relays: Principles and Applications. Vladimir Gurevich

The ‘Optophonic Piano’, Vladimir Rossiné, Russia and France. 1916


The Optophonic Piano

The Optophonic Piano

The Optophonic Piano was a one-off electronic optical instrument created by the Russian Futurist painter Vladimir Baranoff Rossiné (Born in 1888 at Kherson , Ukraine – Russia, died Paris, France 1944). Rossiné started working on his instrument c1916. The Optophonic Piano was used at exhibitions of his own paintings and revolutionary artistic events in the new Soviet Union, Rossiné later gave two concerts with his instrument (with his wife Pauline Boukour), at the Meyerhold and Bolchoi theatres in 1924. Rossiné was influenced by the ideas of Alexander Scriabin who connected sound and colour with music to produce a aesthetic synthesis – this current formed an important, almost mystical theme within Russian electronic music; through the photo-audio experiments of the 1930′s until the ANS Synthesiser (itself named after Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin- ANS) in the 1940s.

Painted glass disk of The Optophonic Piano

Painted glass disk of The Optophonic Piano

Detail of painted disk

Detail of painted disk

Vladimir Rossiné left the Soviet Union in 1925, emigrated to Paris where he continued to hold exhibitions of paintings and concerts of his instrument.The Optophonic Piano generated sounds and projected revolving patterns onto a wall or ceiling by directing a bright light through a series revolving painted glass disks (painted by Rossiné), filters, mirrors and lenses. The keyboard controlled the combination of the various filters and disks. The variations in opacity of the painted disk and filters were picked up by a photo-electric cell controlling the pitch of a single oscillator. The instrument produced a continuous varying tone which, accompanied by the rotating kaleidoscopic projections was used by Vladimir Rossiné at exhibitions and public events:
“Imagine that every key of an organ’s keyboard immobilises in a specific position, or moves a determined element, more or less rapidly, in a group of transparent filters which a beam of white light pierces, and this will give you an idea of the instrument Baranoff-Rossiné invented. There are various kinds of luminous filters: simply coloured ones optical elements such as prisms, lenses or mirrors; filters containing graphic elements and, finally, filters with coloured shapes and defined outlines. If on the top of this, you can modify the projector’s position, the screen frame, the symmetry or asymmetry of the compositions and their movements and intensity; then, you will be able to reconstitute this optical piano that will play an infinite number of musical compositions. The key word here is interpret, because, for the time being, the aim is not to find a unique rendering of an existing musical composition for which the author did not foresee a version expressed by light. In music, as in any other artistic interpretation, one has to take into account elements such as the talent and sensitivity of the musician in order to fully understand the author’s mind-frame. The day when a composer will compose music using notes that remain to be determined in terms of music and light, the interpreter’s liberty will be curtailed, and that day, the artistic unity we were talking about will probably be closer to perfection…”Extract of an original text by Baranoff Rossiné (1916) Copyright ©Dimitri Baranoff Rossine 1997 – Adherant ADAGP -
Vladimir Baranoff Rossiné. Born in 1888 at Kherson , Ukraine - Russia, died Paris, France 1944

Vladimir Baranoff Rossiné. Born in 1888 at Kherson , Ukraine – Russia, died Paris, France 1944


zdocuments of the collection of Dimitri Baranoff Rossine. Copyright © Dimitri Baranoff Rossine Paris 2010

Pravda. 2002.06.20/13:21

The ‘Theremin’ or ‘Thereminvox’. Leon Termen, Russia. 1922


The principles of beat frequency or heterodyning oscillators were discovered by chance during the first decades of the twentieth century by radio engineers experimenting with radio vacuum tubes. Heterodyning effect is created by two high radio frequency sound waves of similar but varying frequency combining and creating a lower audible frequency, equal to the difference between the two radio frequencies (approximately 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz). the musical potential of the effect was noted by several engineers and designers including Maurice MartenotNikolay ObukhovArmand Givelet and the Russian Cellist and electronic engineer, Leon (or Lev) Sergeivitch Termen .

NKVD Photograph of Lev Termen

NKVD Photograph of Lev Sergeyevich Termen (Russian: Ле́в Серге́евич Терме́н) (27 August [O.S. 15 August] 1896 – 3 November 1993),

One problem with utilising the heterodyning effect for musical purposes was that as the body came near the vacuum tubes the capacitance of the body caused variations in frequency. Leon Termen realised that rather than being a problem, body capacitance could be used as a control mechanism for an instrument and finally freeing the performer from the keyboard and fixed intonation. Termen’s first machine, built in the USSR in 1917 was christened the “Theremin” (after himself) or the “Aetherophone” (sound from the ‘ether’) and was the first instrument to exploit the heterodyning principle.

The original Theremin used a foot pedal to control the volume and a switch mechanism to alter the pitch. This prototype evolved into a production model Theremin in 1920, this was a unique design, resembling a gramophone cabinet on 4 legs with a protruding metal antenae and a metal loop. The instrument was played by moving the hands around the metal loop for volume and around the antenae for pitch. The output was a monophonic continuous tone modulated by the performer. The timbre of the instrument was fixed and resembled a violin string sound. The sound was produced directly by the heterodyning combination of two radio-frequency oscillators: one operating at a fixed frequency of 170,000 Hz, the other with a variable frequency between 168,000 and 170,000 Hz. The frequency of the second oscillator being determined by the proximity of the musician’s hand to the pitch antenna. The difference of the fixed and variable radio frequencies results in an audible beat frequency between 0 and 2,000 Hz. The audible sound came from the oscillators, later models adding an amplifier and large triangular loudspeaker. This Theremin model was first shown to the public at the Moscow Industrial Fair in 1920 and was witnessed by Lenin who requested lessons on the instrument. Lenin later commissioned 600 models of the Theremin to be built and toured around the Soviet Union.

Termen left the Soviet Union in 1927 for the United States where he was granted a patent for the Theremin in 1928. The Theremin was marketed and distributed in the USA by RCA during the 1930′s as a DIY kit form or as a finished instrument ( later aficionados of the instrument included Robert Moog who made and sold transistorised Theremins in the 1950s). The heterodyning vacuum tube oscillator became the standard method of producing electronic sound until the advent of the transistor in the 1960′s and was widely used by electronic musical instrument designs of the period. The Theremin became known in the USA as a home ‘novelty instrument’ and featured in many film soundtracks of the 1940-50′s, it also appeared in several pop records of the 1960′s but never overcame it’s novelty appeal; used for effect rather than as a ‘serious instrument’, most recordings employ the Theremin as a substitute string instrument rather than exploiting the microtonal and pitch characteristics of the instrument. Leon Sergeivitch Termen went on to develop variations on the original Theremin which included the “Terpsitone”, The “Rhythmicon”, the “keyboard Theremin” and the “Electronic Cello”.

Promotional brochure for the RCA Theremin

Biographical Information: Leon Sergeivitch Termen. 1896 – 1993

The story of Lev Sergeivitch Termen is like some nightmarish John LeCarre novel. Prof. Termen was born in the Russian city of St Petersberg in 1896, he would become one of the most important pioneers in the development of electronic music through his instrument the Thereminvox (commonly referred to as the Theremin). Prof. Termen first invented a prototype Thereminvox in 1920, he worked upon his invention for the next few years, whilst also relocating from Russia to New York. A US patent was granted to Termen for the invention of the Thereminvox in 1928. Termen set up a studio there catering to high society patrons from whom he would extract the moneys he used to continue his experiments. His New York studio apparently was kitted out with a variety of devices, that in the late twenties must have seemed like pure science fiction: a variety of electronic audio devices; electronic lighting shows; an electronic dance platform; even a prototype colour television system.

In 1938 Termen was rumoured to have been kidnapped in the New York apartment he shared with his American wife (the black ballet dancer, Iavana Williams) by the NKVD (forerunners of the KGB). Infact he returned to Russia for tax and financial problems in the USA as well as his concerns over the coming war.

“I left New York because at that time the war was coming. The military troops of the fascists were approaching Leningrad, and so on. I asked to be sent to the Soviet Union so as to make myself useful, I asked many times. For a whole year I asked to be sent back. The war had already started, and they didn’t send me, they didn’t send me. Then at last they permitted me. They assigned me to be an assistant to the captain of a large motor ship. So I went home, but they did not take my wife.”

On his return He was accused of propagating anti-Soviet propaganda by Stalin. Meanwhile reports of his execution were widely circulated in the West. In fact Termen was not executed, but interned in Magadan, a notoriously brutal Siberian labour camp.

 “I was arrested, and I was taken prisoner. Not quite a prisoner, but they put me in a special lab in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. There I worked in this lab just as others worked. [Airplane designer] Andrei Tupolev was imprisoned in such a way too, if you know about that. He was considered to be a prisoner, and I was considered a prisoner too…At one time, on the way to the laboratory, I was sent to a camp, where they did road construction. I was assigned to be supervisor over the prisoners. From there, after eight months on road construction, I was sent with Tupolev to the Aviation Institute. Many important people worked there: [Missile designer] Sergei Korolyov worked there for me.”

Leon Termen interview By Olivia Mattis and Robert Moog 1992

Termen was put to work on top secret projects by the Soviet authorities  (together with Andrei Tupolev, Sergei Korolev, and other well-known scientists and engineers)  which culminated in his invention of the first “bug,” a sophisticated electronic eavesdropping device. Termen supervised the bugging of both the American embassy, (and perhaps, Stalin’s private apartment). For this ground-breaking work he was awarded the Stalin Prize (first Class), Russia very highest honour.

After his rehabilitation Termen took up a teaching position at the Moscow conservatory of music. However he was ejected for continuing his researches in the field of electronic music. Post war Soviet ideology decreed that modern music was pernicious. Termen was reportedly told that electricity should be reserved for the execution of traitors. After this episode Termen took up a technical position, and worked upon non-music related electronics . Ironically his invention the Thereminvox, was becoming vastly influential in America, a development of which he was completely unaware.Before his death in 1993 Prof. Termen made one final visit to America lecturing, and demonstrating his Thereminvox.


“PULLING MUSIC OUT OF THIN AIR: AN INTERVIEW WITH LEON THEREMIN”By Olivia Mattis and Robert Moog. February 1992 issue of Keyboard Magazine.