Google's put its doodle to use today in remembering Clara Rockmore; a highly accomplished musician from the early 20th Century, most famous for her expert use of one of the first ever electronic instruments, the theremin. Today would mark Clara's 105th birthday, and seeing the superb doodle this morning (which let's you play a virtual theremin) I was put in mind of my days while learning electronics, and the section that covered oscillators. It's a fascinating subject in itself, but there's a human story behind it that, today, I feel like retelling.


The Etherphone and Espionage

The theremin is, as you probably know, named after its Russian inventor Leon Theremin. Born in Saint Petersberg at the end of the 19th Century, Theremin is something of an unspoken hero of the early electronics age. It works by using two antennas that create oscillations in the electronic circuits, and are affected by the position of the player's hands.



Moving yours hand near the horizontal loop antenna and the vertical antenna alters the theremin's volume and amplitude, and the signal is then amplified and fed straight into a speaker. The result is that eerie, ethereal, warbling tone that's become so synonymous with sci-fi soundtracks. Originally, it was called an etherphone, and it's easy to see why.


We know about his musical invention, but did you know that he also invented video interlacing? This is the process that made CRT televisions actually watchable, by drawing every other line of the image and then going back to the top and filling in the blanks. It's use helps the human eye to overlook the flickering that occurs when the whole image is redrawn in one go; an essential part of older TVs.


The theremin's invention actually traces back to Leon's electronics speciality, proximity sensing. This research, refined by the development of his musical instrument, helped him to pioneer various types of listening technology that the KGB's predecessor made extensive use of during the Cold War, including laser microphones and the ancestor of RFID technology called The Thing, which was secreted inside a US Great Seal and hung inside the American embassy in Moscow, allowing the Russians to intercept messages for decades.


Fascinating stuff, but tragic for Leon. Rumour has it he was kidnapped by the Russian secret service from his new home in America in 1938, imprisoned in Butyrka and put to work in the Kolyma gold mines. This was a common tactic used to recruit people with special skills, like Leon. After the horrors of the prison and the mines, an offer to work for the secret service became far more appealing than his current existence, and made him much more compliant in creating these espionage devices.


Prior to this he'd married young African American ballet dancer Lavinia Williams, which caused controversy as both were socially ostracised for being a mixed race couple in the 1930. After Theremin was forcibly removed from the US and imprisoned in Russia, she never saw him again.


Electronics, so far, had given Leon little beyond a very tough life.


Leon and Clara

Theremin and Rockmore.pngBorn Clara Reisenberg in Vilnius, Lithuania, at the age of five Clara was, and still is, the youngest student to ever have been admitted to the St Petersberg Conservatory; one of the world's most renowend music schools -- with alumni including Tchaikovsky and Kapp -- which now resides on the site of the Bolshoi Theatre. She was a natural with the violin, but a bone disorder tragically prevented her playing beyond her teen years. But Clara refused to give up her musical aspirations, and found a brand new instrument that she was still able to play. The theremin.


Before his forced indoctrination into the world of Cold War spies, Leon Theremin had toured Europe and the US demonstrating his musical instrument, and captured the attention of the global musical community. During this period he met Clara, and worked with her to refine his invention into an instrument worthy of inclusion in a classical orchestra. Clara became a virtuosos with the machine, and, not unexpectedly, Leon quickly fell in love with her.


Beginning decades of tragedy for the inventor, she refused his marriage proposal multiple times, eventually marrying an attorney called Robert Rockmore. But what feelings she lacked for the inventor were poured upon the invention, and her classical training alongside perfect pitch, precise dexterity influenced her redesign of the instrument to take it from three octaves to five, and adjusting its physical design to better suit the performer. Her input into the development of the theremin was ultimately comparable to Leon's.

Theremin and Rockmore reunited.gif

She toured many of the major orchestral venues throughout her life, demonstrating the artistry that was capable with the theremin, which few have ever achieved. It wasn't until the 1970s when her playing was actually recorded, but her concerts had invariably sold out whenever she performed.


In 1991, two years before he died, Leon was brought to New York as part of a feature length documentary about his life and work, where he was reunited with Clara.