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The "Russian Edison" Changed Our World for the Better

09/26/2014 12:36 EDT | Updated 11/26/2014 05:59 EST
Topical Press Agency via Getty Images
12th December 1927: Professor Leon Theremin demonstrating his theremin. The theremin was the world's first electronic musical instrument. It is played without actually touching any part of the instrument. Film scores of the 40s and 50s used the instrument to eerie effect and it makes a famous appearance in the chorus of the Beach Boys hit 'Good Vibrations'. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Have you ever heard of Leon Theremin? If you don't know him but you like electronic music or have ever used a toll road transponder, or even if you've noticed the square tag on the side of a peanut butter jar at the grocery store, you have Leon Theremin to thank. The early 20th century Russian-born inventor developed technologies that have and will continue to change our world.

The eponymous Theremin, with its unusual and unearthly sound was the very first electronic instrument featuring electromagnetic fields around two antennas; the sound affected by the distance of the player's hands from the instrument. It is not only strange to hear, it is strange to watch -- there is no contact between the player and the instrument: one hand moves as though it is playing violin, controlling pitch, while the other seems to chord like a piano and controls volume.

It can be eerie and mournful, like a harp-voiced soprano, or it can also double as a literal air guitar if people like Jimmy Page play it. The Theremin was the sound of 1950s science-fiction films and when the instrument morphed into the slide Theremin, or Tannerin, the Beach Boys picked it up and used it in Good Vibrations.

Its unmistakable sound in music and film embedded the Theremin in the history of modern music. Theremin's later inventions included automatic doors and an electronic prison security system for Sing Sing, but one invention in particular changed the course of the Cold War. Theremin invented something known as The Thing, a hard-to-detect bugging device that worked on electromagnetic energy and sent radio signals to an external transmitter.

The Thing proved to be the Trojan Horse of the Cold War when the Soviet Union presented the U.S. with a carved wood plaque of the Great Seal of the United States as a "gesture of friendship" in 1946, complete with the bugging device embedded in its design.

From this point, Theremin's invention led to all kinds of infamous spying scandals like the KGB's bugging of the West German embassy in 1964, to the Watergate scandal, to various eavesdropping offences within the European Union in the 21st century.

Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID)

Theremin's tool wasn't all about international espionage; it was the forerunner of a radio-frequency technology that is widely-used in the modern world. Radio-frequency Identification, or RFID, uses efficient, wireless electromagnetic fields that contains electronically-stored information. The technology is predicted to eventually replace UPC or bar codes to improve identification on manufactured goods, track every phase in the supply chain, and reduce errors and labour costs.

Almost anything that has been manufactured or needs to be tracked can have an RFID association: library books, consumer goods, and food items; pets, passports, ID cards, luggage, cars, and freight trains. RFID has proved useful in other items like wristbands for instant access to concerts and resorts, patient tracking in hospitals, and there are even bands to tell medical staff if their hands are clean.

Wrist-band.com manufactures silicone wrist bracelets and develops RFID wristbands for medical facilities and concert events like the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards for VIP and backstage access. Owner, Azim Makanojiya, explains that "RFID technology is a great asset for the warehousing industry as it helps keep track of inventory at a very cheap rate", which is good news for businesses with large inventories. But for smaller operations, the equipment to read RFID them can be very costly, and this affects the value of the technology.

Remember the swift move from CDs to DVDs to Blue Ray in less than 20 years? RFID technology is changing even faster as it becomes more ubiquitous. Makanojiya anticipates that RFID automation may soon be replaced by beacon technology, a small, low-energy, cost-efficient system that uses Bluetooth connections to send messages or prompts to smartphones and tablets indoors.

All of this technology is based on Theremin's use of wireless radio waves, but who could have predicted that what began as a haunting sound would become an omni-present identification system to keep our world in order and our lives easier? Theremin wasn't known as the "Russian Edison" for nothing.