(1896-1993) Inventor of the early-20th-century electronic instrument that bears his name. Theremin was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. He began experimenting with electrical circuits at an early age, and by his university days was working with high-voltage and high-frequency experimental systems. His education was interrupted when he was conscripted into the Russian army to fight during World War I, and this led to his being caught up in the Russian Civil War in 1919.
After the war he was recruited to do research at the Technical Institute in Petrograd. While experimenting with a high-frequency capacitance measuring system, he noticed that the oscillator frequency varied when he moved his hand near the device. He immediately grasped the possibility of developing this as a musical instrument (he had played cello during his school years), and by 1920 was giving public performances on the first theremin.
In 1928 he traveled to the United States to take out patents for the theremin, which he then licensed to RCA. While in the U.S., Theremin worked with noted performer Clara Rockmore on improving the instrument. He also worked on developing some other electronic instruments. Theremin returned to the Soviet Union in 1938 under rather mysterious circumstances. He was initially arrested, but then assigned to work in a secret laboratory developing espionage devices for the Soviet intelligence services. He was successful in developing several advanced covert listening devices which were used against the U.S. and Great Britain. He worked for the labs for some years, transitioning in the 1960s to becoming a university professor in Moscow. He did not return to the U.S. until 1991, just two years before his death, where he collaborated a few more times with Rockmore.
Theremin died in Moscow in 1993.