First, if you don’t know what a theremin is, you haven’t watched enough 1950s science fiction movies. Theremins create that weird, quivering drone that, for a generation of film goers, foretold of an encounter with outer-space aliens or something equally unsettling.
This video presents Peter Pringle playing a theremin built in 1929. It’s an electronic instrument that is never touched by the musician while playing it, and the song here might remind you of a cinematic encounter with aliens that, well, aren’t exactly from outer space. Let it play as you continue to read.
Now, here’s a funny thing. I stumbled across a 1922 article written by psychical researcher Hereward Carrington. It’s a report on the invention of a “ghost-hunting machine” called “the ululometer–or ‘psychic howler.'” What is it? Carrington says, “The ululometer is an intensely sensitive coil of 3,000 finely tuned copper wires which may be set up in a room believed to be haunted. . . . The ululometer reveals the presence of any energy, living or disembodied — human being or ghost — that comes within six feet of the coil.” He adds that if either a human being or ghost “approaches close to the coil there is a howling noise of very loud pitch audible in the [attached telephone] receivers, which increases in pitch as the body comes nearer.” Huh, look at that. The pitch increases “as the body comes nearer.” Interesting.
On the surface, this device certainly seems to act something like a theremin, which varies in pitch and volume depending on the proximity of the player’s hands. And according to the website of the Santa Fe Institute, the inventor, Lev Termen, a.k.a. Leon Theremin, “demonstrated his first working model of the instrument that bears his name in 1920 as the Etherphone, soon to be known as the Termenvox, or literally, Voice of Termen.” That’s two years before Carrington’s article appeared. The term ether in Etherphone would have struck a chord with a psychical researcher, too, since it can refer to the mysterious space between Earth’s atmosphere and the Heavens.
To be convinced that ghost hunters in the early 1920s were enlisting the aid of an early theremin, I would need to know much more about the ululometer than Carrington’s article reveals and more about the workings of Theremin’s invention. But the possibility that there’s a connection is certainly appealing, given how theremins went on be used to signal eerie, otherworldly encounters.
For a wonderful essay on the ululometer and other ghost-hunting gizmos of the same era, read Chris Woodyard’s “The Psychic Howler – Vintage Ghost-hunting Tools.” And if the sound of theremin music has slithered into your heart, I enthusiastically recommend the two CDs featuring the “cocktail music” of a group called Project: Pimento.
I clipped that article about the ululometer and taped it below. It ends by referring to Carrington’s colleague Walter Prince and his investigation of the Antigosh poltergeist, a ghost hunt I discuss here.