Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 4
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
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The Spirit of Invention Prevails in Sight and Sound at Sarnoff

Ellen Gilbert

The older couple was showing Dr. Alexander B. Magoun, Executive Director of the David Sarnoff Library, a photograph of a radio console — really a retro entertainment center. “He had just come back from the War [World War II],” explained the woman, “and we needed a table and chairs. We got to the top of the escalator in Gimbel’s and saw this.” She didn’t mention whether or not they ever got around to buying anything as practical as kitchen furniture, but the must-have, beautifully-maintained piece of furniture in the photograph was clearly a source of pride.

The past was very much alive and well at the Sarnoff Library’s open house on Saturday, as Mr. Magoun led tours of the Washington Road facility, the New Jersey Antique Radio Club held a repair clinic, and the eerie sounds of the theremin, a unique electronic instrument, wafted through the air.

No Failure to Communicate

The Sarnoff Library is devoted to documenting the world of communications giant David Sarnoff, and what a world it was, encompassing radio, television, electronics, and the history of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA).

Theatergoers who have recently seen or plan to see The Farnsworth Invention, the Broadway show by West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin depicting the tension (who really created television?) between young inventor Philo Farnsworth and corporate magnate Sarnoff, may be intrigued by the early versions of TV in evidence at the library. “I’m not quite certain how to take advantage of the show’s existence,” Mr. Magoun diplomatically observed. On the Library’s website ( and in his tour, however, Mr. Magoun is clearly on Sarnoff’s side as he compares a Farnsworth image, with the subject’s eyes shut tight against the glare of the light necessary for the operation of Farnsworth’s version, to the open eyes in a photo taken using Sarnoff’s technology, which enabled light to be stored and used to produce greater contrast — without blinding the person posing.

No one is arguing about the man responsible for the theremin, though. It was invented by Russian inventor Léon Theremin in 1919, when he noticed that his hand acted like an conductor when it neared an electronic field, according to master theremin player Kip Rosser. Thus it is the first musical instrument designed to be played without being touched. Mr. Rosser regaled visitors on Saturday with a “A Theremin Feast,” complete with a “menu” of selections that featured “Romantic Suppers for Two” (“Embraceable You,” The Way You Look Tonight”), “After Hours Cool Platters” (“Misty” and “Round Midnight”), along with a “Beatles Buffet” (“Eleanor Rigby’ and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”). Movie buffs may remember the sound of the theremin from classics like Spellbound, The Lost Weekend, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Baby boomers will be glad to know that it was used on the TV show My Favorite Martian, whenever Uncle Martin practiced his powers of levitation or raised his -antennae. Although RCA’s attempt to market theremins in the 1930s not surprisingly, met with failure, it is now, according to Mr. Rosser, “in huge demand” among musicians and hobbyists.

What next, after the likes of flat-screen television and finely updated theremins? “After Marconi invented the radio people said we’ve solved everything,” observed Mr. Magoun. “Then Einstein showed up … then quantum mechanics.” In other words, stay tuned.

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