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Theremin's Bug Let Soviets Spy On USA For More Than 7 Years (hackaday.com) 99

szczys writes: Theremin, yes the same Theremin who built the instrument that made the Star Trek theme song famous, had a hand in espionage as well. Albeit not a willing one. Turns out his life is actually quite tragic. In addition to that story, Adam Fabio takes a trip through the details of "The Thing", a bug installed in the US Embassy by the Soviet Union during the cold war. It used no batteries, instead depending on a carrier frequency transmitted by the "listener", causing the resonant cavity to transmit back the audio from the room at a higher frequency. Pretty nifty, and so was the hiding place: a hand-carved wooden seal of the United States. Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts, right?
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Theremin's Bug Let Soviets Spy On USA For More Than 7 Years

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Apart from a few episodes where an electronic organ or synthesizer was used, the theremin-like sound on the original Star Trek theme was actually provided by renowned studio soprano Loulie Jean Norman until her voice was removed in later seasons.

    source [wikipedia.org]

    A Doctor Who reference would have been nice.

    • by szczys ( 3402149 )
      I never got into Who. Is it too late? And if not, where in that mammoth string of series' would one start?
      • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Tuesday December 08, 2015 @12:36PM (#51081617) Homepage

        Why, anywhere you choose ... it's a show about a time traveler, you don't need to see it in order. ;-)

        Though, you'll probably find starting with the modern reboot with Christopher Eccleston is probably most available. Since it was a reboot it had to establish some of the things for a fresh audience.

        But for some of us, Tom Baker is the nostalgic Doctor because it's the one we saw first and who we think of as the most iconic Doctor. But I think that largely depends on just how long you've been watching it.

        It's never too late to binge watch a TV show if you're interested in it.

        • It's never too late to binge watch a TV show if you're interested in it.

          Sadly, it is too late [wikipedia.org] to binge-watch every episode of classic Doctor Who.

          • Sadly, it is too late to binge-watch every episode of classic Doctor Who.

            You seem to have mistaken "sadly" for a synonym of gloriously .

        • I'd agree with this the really classic stuff is very dated looking. Start with Eccelston (1 season only), then Tennant (my personal favorite), and if you're still into it, follow along with Matt Smith. I am not liking Capaldi or the new writing though, it just tries too hard to be deep and avant garde anymore.
          • by erikkemperman ( 252014 ) on Tuesday December 08, 2015 @02:16PM (#51082559)

            I am not liking Capaldi or the new writing though, it just tries too hard to be deep and avant garde anymore.

            Have to disagree about Capaldi. Tennant got the right balance of dark and light, but I thought Smith was just all fluff, so I like that Capaldi's Doctor is rougher, grizzly even. But then I was a huge fan of The Thick of It.

            The writing, yeah I miss Russell T. Davies. Moffat is clearly a talented writer (I love what he did with Sherlock) but the best episodes of the Who reboot, for me, are basically all Russell. And Torchwood doesn't look like coming back either, I'd probably rate seasons 3 and 4 over all of Who.

            Shame Neil Gaiman didn't do more.

        • "Why, anywhere you choose ... it's a show about a time traveler, you don't need to see it in order. ;-)"

          Which would certainly be true if there were actual Timelords and they could actually be bothered to write a TV series for the likes of us, but in reality the series was created by people who are restrained by the annoying limitations of humans, such that the writers couldn't possibly remove the time element because it is imposed pre-ex-post-facto. ;-) IOTW, When they wrote the first series, they couldn't

        • by doccus ( 2020662 )

          There's 'another* doctor instead of Tom Baker? In fact, the humorless approach so favored as of late really does the whole show quite a disservice. And Tom knew it

      • They have 400+ episodes of the early Doctors before Eccleston. If you didn't grow up on low budget British television it might be hard to watch at first but if you stick with it you get an appreciation for the different personalities of the Doctors.

      • by Vokkyt ( 739289 )

        Depends on what you're looking for. The original run was, well, classic brit sci-fi. The 2009 reboot with Eccleston is a bit more palatable to modern tastes while retaining a lot of the cheesiness that makes Who worthwhile.

        Personally, I'd start with the reboot - you can follow along without needing the history of the preceding seasons. I started with the 2009 reboot and it was enjoyable enough. Plus it's on most streaming services.

      • Well, you can't really start at the beginning, because much of it is missing [wikipedia.org]... but I'd recommend starting at the beginning of the 2005 series. I was a fan as far back as the early 80's, but my wife started watching the new series and she liked it right away... so I'd say watch the new series, and you can watch the old one as you like to fill in some of the back story.

        There are occasional references to the original series in the new one, but they aren't really required viewing.

      • by gameboyhippo ( 827141 ) on Tuesday December 08, 2015 @01:02PM (#51081805) Journal

        Start at the new Doctor Who in Season 5 episode 1. Watch until "Day of the Doctor". Then go back to Season 1 episode 1. Finish off the rest of new Who. Then go back and watch the classic Who (at least what exists).

        Why Season 5 Episode 1? Because there are some huge spoilers in earlier seasons. (It's a time travel show). It also makes a certain episode in Season 4 a lot more tragic.

        As for classic who, my advice for watching it is to view it like a play rather than like a modern show.

      • There are many schools of thought on this seemingly simple question.

        1. Start from the beginning: Doctor 1 This will show his growth and change of character over time... However these episodes weren't made for binge watching, You watch an episode and watch the next on a day later, otherwise you get board to tears.

        2. Start with Doctor 4: He was the doctor for the longest time and really defined what is the Doctor

        3. Start with Doctor 3: That is where it switched to color as well Doctor 3 was more action orien

        • The first few episodes of Doctor Who were so bad they almost got the series cancelled. Don't start a new Doctor Who fan watching anything before the first Dalek series on Skaro. That series was what made Doctor Who the second biggest British TV franchise ever.

          For a modern audience, I would recommend starting at the reboot with the new series and Russell T Davies and Christopher Ecceleston. That was the point at which Doctor Who became interesting again for a new generation.

    • Dr. Who
      1. British not American
      2. They used the original sound track with tape dubbing. A double bass pluck and a sine wave which was than spliced and plaid back at different speeds.

      By the time of the 5th doctor they switched to an electronic synthesizer. Then to a full orchestra.

  • oblig. FTFY (Score:5, Funny)

    by NotQuiteReal ( 608241 ) on Tuesday December 08, 2015 @12:01PM (#51081379) Journal
    Beware Geeks Bearing Gifts
    • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

      It was the local boy-scouts who "presented" it to them.

      But in general they should have X-rayed it before mounting it. I suppose that may be difficult to pull off in the Soviet Union. An alternative is to photograph it, send the photos to expert carvers, and make and mount a duplicate.

      Maybe "accidentally" drop the original so that if you are caught throwing it away, you have an alibi: "we accidentally dropped it, and made a duplicate because we didn't want to offend the boy-scouts."

  • Theremin (Score:4, Informative)

    by Dan East ( 318230 ) on Tuesday December 08, 2015 @12:04PM (#51081401) Journal

    This, my friends, is the geekiest thing you will see today. Trekkie plays Star Trek theme on Theremin [youtube.com].

  • by Anrego ( 830717 ) * on Tuesday December 08, 2015 @12:12PM (#51081439)

    There was a show called Dark Matters that did a segment on this. The show itself had shitty production values, sometimes went a bit heavy with sensationalism, and the facts were a bit dubious... but some of the segments were decent, and the Theremin one was one of them.

    • I remember that show, it had the doctor from Fringe (cringe) but it was a fun throw away show, dubious is one way to put it. But that's exactly what sprang to mind when i read the summary, they did an episode on that bug, pretty neat considering.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    He was kidnapped out of NYC by Stalin's operatives to help in the war effort (WWII). Unbelievable.

    • by Thud457 ( 234763 )
      Hey, at least he wasn't forced to make monster movies about the evils of unchecked Capitalism.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      This is not correct.

      He had racked up formidable debts and unpaid taxes. In late 1938 he fled the U.S. by ship back to the U.S.S.R. When he landed, he was sent to a Siberian labor camp. Walter and Lucie Rosen were Theremin's last patrons in the U.S. putting him up in one of their row of townhouses on 54th street for a few years while teaching Lucie theremin technique. The last theremin instrument built by Theremin before this flight is Lucie's "September Theremin" that is at Caramoor, the Rosen's former ups

    • He was kidnapped out of NYC by Stalin's operatives to help in the war effort (WWII). Unbelievable.

      Who, Bennet Haselton?

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Tuesday December 08, 2015 @12:29PM (#51081583)

    It's like the old joke of the Soviet hell...

    Seriously, what we get is either not news or not for nerds. This may be for nerds, but news? That story is like half a century old, that's even old by /. standards!

  • by mykepredko ( 40154 ) on Tuesday December 08, 2015 @01:00PM (#51081793) Homepage

    I cringed at the sentence "Receive tuning (if it can be called such) was achieved by the precisely cut antenna." which is actually how EVERY radio is tuned; the antenna is a component of the resonant circuit which forms the receiver.

    I've read about the bugged seal for years, when I was a kid it was used as an example how how nasty Soviets could never be trusted. It's an interesting story - but honestly, the story of the US embassy built in Moscow in the early 1980s is much more interesting. I knew two people involved with the analysis of the building and it's a fascinating case of hubris. The US felt that they could detect any passive resonant cavity devices using the same techniques they used for "The Thing" and, more importantly, for active radios, they could detect them by a non-linear junction detector (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonlinear_junction_detector) which finds the P-N junctions of diodes and transistors.

    The Soviets, knowing this, simply dumped a bunch of diodes in the concrete used for the building meaning that everywhere in the building, the diodes would be found and could not be distinguished from any other electronic devices in the building making the search for bugging devices impossible.

    My friends spent several months chipping at the concrete walls of the embassy and never found any listening devices, just diodes which were labouriously separated from the concrete. It's interesting to see articles of the day (http://www.nytimes.com/1988/11/15/world/the-bugged-embassy-case-what-went-wrong.html?pagewanted=all & http://articles.latimes.com/19... [latimes.com]) claiming that listening devices were found in the building but what I was told was that there were a few pieces of rebar which were not properly installed and about $500 worth of diodes mixed into the concrete. The claims of listening devices are most likely exaggerated to lessen the embarrassment that the Soviets had pulled over such a big coup over on the US for what amounts to petty cash.

    • by plover ( 150551 )

      George Bush (the elder) had the embassy building's top floors removed and rebuilt by American workers using Minnesota-sourced stone. Transmitters located in a nearby church, dubbed 'Our Lady of Telemetry', keep the embassy bathed in radio signals. Doesn't matter if there are or were actual listening devices or just a bunch of PN junctions, they were primarily thumbing their noses at the Americans.

      It also doesn't help any that the top floors are also filled with NSA transmitters and receivers. The spying

    • I cringed at the sentence "Receive tuning (if it can be called such) was achieved by the precisely cut antenna." which is actually how EVERY radio is tuned; the antenna is a component of the resonant circuit which forms the receiver.

      Uhm, sorta but not really. The antenna is certainly a component of the system but it doesn't tune anything. Antennas frequently have a bandwidth much higher than necessary so a radio can receive/transmit multiple frequencies (sometimes at the same time). Radios (even simple ones) have post antenna tuning circuitry to tune-in the frequency of interest. Otherwise your car antenna (or TV antenna) couldn't receive multiple stations. Or your cell phone and/or RC transmitter couldn't frequency hop. Frequency

  • sorry I have no imagination so I can't create one.
  • Though you can play Star Trek on a theremin, the original Trek theme was a fairly traditional orchestral score.
    • Maybe editor is thinking of Day the Earth Stood Still which has theremin...
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Despite Sheldon's citation (Big Bang Theory), in season two and three, the melody line that sounds kinda like a theremin is a woman's voice.
      The mighty Wikipedia has the straight scoop: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theme_from_Star_Trek .

  • If they had enclosed the whole room inside a Faraday's cage, the carrier beam from outside would not have penetrated the room to illuminate the "thing". Its echo, even fainter would not have escaped out either. And it is not all the difficult to create a cage. Wall paper with thin wires pasted on the walls, ceiling and under the carpet would cover it. If there are windows, the curtains, sheers and/or drapery could have woven into the fabric these wires.

    Or did they? Is it possible they had been trolling th

    • by bkr1_2k ( 237627 )

      Or have I been reading too many Irwin Wallace, Len Deighton, Frederick Forsyth, Jack Higgins and am giving too much credit to the bureaucrats working on Government pay-scale GS-11 counting days till retirement?

      Or am I so showing my age with this list of authors which makes the slashdot reading whippersnappers go "Irwin who? What Forsyth?"

      Yes and yes.

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      Re "Is it possible they had been trolling the Soviets for 7 years to discuss phony "top secret" things in such rooms that are not covered with Faraday's cage wall paper?"
      The US has such confidence in its bug sweeps that it felt physical room security and an understanding of existing advanced electronics was enough, ie the room was comfy, fancy, tested, warm, papers at hand, secure and the room found to be "safe". Why walk all the way down to the vault for every talk?
      The other aspect was US telephone dis
      • That was my point. It is relatively easy to put a Faraday's cage on a comfortable, airy, sunny room. Wire woven wall papers, draperies and carpets would the trick. Why wouldn't or didn't they do it?
        • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
          It was the room with the Great Seal of the United States, on display for anyone with a good reason to be invited in to see, public relations pretty, a nation on show.
          Fine wire mesh over the door, walls, under the floor might work but its not as secure or useful as a real, designed isolated vault.
          Most nations tried to build their secure vaults up off the floor, isolated from everything. A room within a room.
          It was an everyday office that projected an image of the wealth, skill and power USA into another
  • Good article. However, there is one minor error: "A replica of the great seal is on display at the NSA National Cryptologic Museum."

    The replica is at the International Spy Museum [spymuseum.org] in Washington D.C. and the original is at the NSA Cryptological Museum [nsa.gov].

    I have seen them both and the replica is a very poor copy of the original wood carving.

  • I met Theremin about a year before he died. It was at Stanford, at an electronic music celebration for him. Just about all of the big names in electronic music were there. I went because my wife is a big fan of radical music.

    Many years before that, my father had Theremin's spy gadget in his office in the Pentagon when he was chief of the scientific section of G2. It was dead simple, a resonate cavity with a diaphragm to pick up sound and modulate the outgoing signal.

"The number of Unix installations has grown to 10, with more expected." -- The Unix Programmer's Manual, 2nd Edition, June, 1972