Podcast Episode #6 – The Inventions and Espionage of Leon Theremin with Doctor Albert Glinsky
Leon Theremin was a brilliant but doomed inventor who created two of the most revolutionary devices in the history of spycraft at the behest of Josef Stalin.
Theremin served in the first World War as a communications officer for the Russian Army, having already worked as an electrical engineering student. He went on to create the Theremin musical instrument, an unparalleled accomplishment that synthesized music simply by gesturing near two antennae. He toured the United States to demonstrate the device, all while conducting industrial espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.
When he finally returned home in 1938, he was arrested and put to work in a sharashka, a prison laboratory where he worked for the next 16 years, creating surveillance devices for the NKVD and KGB. His most famous invention from that period is unquestionably the Great Seal Bug, an audio bug which was implanted in a carved wooden seal of the United States, which was presented to US ambassador Averill Harriman by a group of Soviet boys in 1945.
The device hung above his desk for the next seven years, allowing the Soviets to record every conversation in the ambassador’s office. This incredible design wasn’t discovered during routine scans because it required no power source and generated no signal; Soviet agents in an apartment across the street from the ambassador’s residence would direct a high-frequency signal beam at his office. A flexible metal wall in the Seal acted as a diaphragm and reflected the signal, now modulated by sound waves generated by the Ambassador’s conversations. Its eventual discovery seven years later sent shockwaves through the US intelligence community as the design was far more advanced than anything in use by the West.
For episode six of the Spycraft 101 podcast I interviewed Dr. Albert Glinsky, author of Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage, the definitive work on Theremin’s incredible life. We cover his rise from promising student to Soviet army officer to genius inventor, to Stalin’s prisoner, and more.
Get Dr. Glinsky’s book here: Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage by Dr. Albert Glinsky.