TechMan: Thank the Cold War for E-ZPass technology

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Ever wonder how the E-ZPass you use on the turnpike is connected to the instrument that made that eerie music in 1950s science-fiction B films and Russian spying?

It's a fascinating story.

Leon Theremin was a Russian doing research for the government in 1920 when he invented an early electronic instrument that ended up being named after him.

The theremin is rare among musical instruments in that it is played without physical contact. The movement of hands in the proximity of two metal antennas controls the pitch and volume of the music. The audio signal generated is played through a loudspeaker.

The theremin was most famous for its use in movie scores, particularly science fiction movies. It appeared in the scores of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "The Thing From Another World," among others. Think ooooWEEEEoooo.

The story now takes on aspects of a spy novel.

Mr. Theremin returned to the Soviet Union in 1938 under unclear circumstances. Once back, he went to work for the Soviet espionage effort. One of his inventions created an international incident and forged the connection to Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology. RFID is a wireless system that uses radio-frequency electromagnetic fields to transfer tracking and identification data from a tag attached to an object. RFID tags can be activated by an outside source that is used to read them.

Not only is it what makes the E-ZPass possible but it is being used more and more in industry. Because modern RFID tags are so small and cheap, they can be attached to or injected into many things. Pharmaceuticals can be tracked through warehouses, and livestock and pets may have tags injected, allowing positive identification of the animal.

They can even be implanted in people -- and that has raised privacy concerns.

So back to the Soviet Union, Moscow specifically.

Mr. Theremin designed a listening device he called The Thing. It had a membrane connected to a small antenna and became active only when a radio signal of the correct frequency was sent to the device.

The device was embedded in a carved wooden plaque of the Great Seal of the United States presented by the Soviet Union in 1945 to U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman, as a "gesture of friendship." It hung in the ambassador's Moscow residential study.

In 1952, the bug was accidentally discovered after a British radio operator overheard American conversations on an open radio channel as the Russians were beaming radio waves at the ambassador's office.

During meetings of the United Nations Security Council on the 1960 U-2 incident, in which a U.S. spy plane entered Soviet territory and was shot down, the U.S. ambassador showed off the bugging device in the Great Seal to illustrate that spying incidents between the two nations were mutual.

Mr. Theremin's Thing is considered to be a predecessor of RFID technology because it was a passive device activated by waves from an outside source and transmitted information (sound in this case), just like the E-ZPass transmits information for assessing tolls when it is scanned by the reader in the toll lane. So the next time you breeze onto the turnpike using your E-ZPass, you can thank the Cold War.

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Read TechMan's blog at post-gazette.com/techman. Watch and listen to TechTalk at multimedia.post-gazette.com.


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