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October 28, 2003

A public radio commentary

No doubt during this halloween season you will hear some movie, or some recording that has this familiar, yet erie sound.

That sound gave birth to the greatest gift from engineers to the arts: The electronic synthesizer.

The synthesizer began in the 1920s with Professor Leon Theremin. In a Leningrad engineering lab he played around with the latest technology: radio. It fascinated Theremin because radio changed electricity into sound. He brought two parts of the radio close together so they made a sound, like the squeal from putting a microphone too near a speaker. This propelled him, in his own words, "to give [these sounds] a musical soul."

He built an instrument where instead of physically bringing the two parts together, the performer's body would create the squeal. He would just wave his hands in front of the instrument plucking music from the air.

You've likely heard the Theremin , as the instrument became known, in the 1950s Sci-Fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.

But well before that, Theremin toured the world and captured headlines. The New York Times called it "Ether Music." The Chicago Tribune said that Theremin "Mysteriously Reproduces Music." Einstein called it "as significant as ... when primitive man ... produced sound from a bowstring." The instrument made quite a splash until 1938 when Theremin disappeared abruptly.

Kidnapped by Soviet agents, he was sent to a labor camp until he agreed to work for the KGB.

But Leon Theremin had planted a seed. In the late 1950s a 14 year old boy built a Theremin from plans he found in a magazine. By age 20 he began making them commercially, selling enough to pay for his engineering education. The student, Robert Moog, used what he'd learned about electronic music from the Theremin and built, in 1964, the world's first synthesizer.

With Moog's synthesizer, the child of Leon Theremin's wonderful instrument, electronic music became world famous with one of the best selling classic albums of all time: Switched on Bach.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises