Today is, thanks to a long-ago calendar change, one of the two birthdays in 1896 of Leon Theremin.

He’s the inventor of a very unusual musical instrument that you play without touching it.

Hence the old joke, I bought a theremin, but honestly I haven’t touched it in years…

Growing up in St. Petersburg, Russia, Theremin’s two great interests were physics and music.

After training as an electrical engineer, he found a way to bring his two passions together.

He was repairing a radio when he noticed strange swooping noises coming out of the device.

And he quickly realized that he could not only replicate the accident, but control the sounds that it made.

He built a prototype of an all-electronic instrument he originally called the aetherphone.

There were no keys, buttons or strings; instead, there were antennas, oscillators and vacuum tubes.

A player generated sound by disrupting the electromagnetic fields in the air around the instrument, usually with their hands.

By the time he had perfected the instrument, Russia was part of the Soviet Union; fortunately for Theremin, Vladimir Lenin himself was a fan, and sent the inventor out into the world to popularize his creation.

Music enthusiasts were fascinated by the sounds the device could make, and how a player’s emotion seemed to leap from their hands right into the musical notes themselves.

Engineers and scientists were just as impressed by the technical side of the invention; Theremin even spent time with Albert Einstein, among other great minds.

But after a decade or so in the West, Theremin went back to the USSR and more or less dropped out of sight.

Some of the time Theremin’s home country hailed him: he taught at prestigious music schools and won big awards.

At other times, he was persecuted: he spent time in labor camps and was once tossed from a musical conservatory because, as one higher-up told him, electricity should be used for electrocutions, not for music.

His namesake instrument also dropped out of sight, though not entirely.

In the 1950s, movie producers loved how the theremin could generate spooky noises and melodies.

By the 1960s and 70s, some big name bands had been experimenting with the instrument, like the Beach Boys in “Good Vibrations” and Led Zeppelin on “Whole Lotta Love,” for example.

And a whole generation of electronic musicians were using the theremin as inspiration for their own musical ideas.

One of them was Robert Moog, the inventor of the landmark Moog synthesizer.

He once said Leon Theremin’s creation was the “biggest, fattest, most important musical cornerstone of the whole electronic music movement.”

Today in 2018, Charlotte Peart of Peterborough, UK matched all five numbers in the £1 million EuroMillions HotPicks lottery.

Which was great, except that three weeks earlier she had pranked her husband by pretending she’d won a quarter million pounds in the lottery.

It took a while for her to convince the guy she’d actually won.

Leon Theremin’s two birthdays: his official biographer speaks (Moog Foundation)

Theremin (Quartz)

Woman wins £1m weeks after fake lottery win prank (BBC)

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Photo by jeremy avnet via Flickr/Creative Commons