Wednesday, 4 August 2021

the thing

While best known for inventing the electronic musical instrument the theremin, Léon Theremin also designed one of the first bugging devices to passively transmit audio signals. A forerunner to RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips used in inventory control and as anti-shoplifting technology, the so called Thing (the first of its kind) or the Endovibrator (Эндовибра́тор) was embedded in a carved wooden seal presented to the ambassador of the US diplomatic mission to the Soviet Union by the Young Pioneer organisation (see also) as a gesture of friendship on this day in 1945, shortly before the end of World War II. Ingeniously, a small length of antenna requiring no external power source would vibrate, picking up voices in the embassy office and could be demodulated—without risk of detection by a receiver tuned to the right station.

Unnoticed for nearly seven years until under the tenure of George F. Kennan, the Thing was only discovered by accident with a radio operator at the neighbouring British compound picking up feedback. The existence of such bugging capabilities was not disclosed to the public until 1960, during an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council convened after a US spy plane had been shot down over Soviet territory.