Excerpt from Avant God: the Biography of Veronika Grygar

Grygar was thrilled when she received her acceptance to Vkhutemas. She packed a single trunk and boarded the train for Moscow in August of 1924. She enrolled in the Metalwork department of the Industrial studio, where she apprenticed with Alexander Rodchenko, but the first few months were a constant battle with the faculty and the other students. "I had to win my place," Grygar said. "I had to prove that a girl, a girl missing a hand!, was worthy of the position." Her first studio project, fusing plate steel and glass into eight-foot-tall Soviet banners that seemed to billow on the breath of the Soyuz, proved that she belonged with Vkhutemas.

While the studio's ultimate goal was to train students in the fusion of aesthetics and function, Rodchenko encouraged the application of theoretical physics, descriptive geometry, and political literacy in product design. Years later, Grygar would write to Rodchenko, "I felt for the first time that I was part of a family." Grygar tempered her religious polemic with this sense of belonging, but she could not completely segregate theology from her new studies, which led to her initial theories on Divine aesthetics that elicited (covert) praise from Rodchenko. The studio rector, however, would neither praise her religious sensibilities, nor could he condemn the perfection of her work.

Grygar often said that her meeting with Léon Theremin was pre-ordained. In an interview with David Brinkley she said, "the meager scholarship concerning applications of the cathode ray tube for viewing images remotely merely left my mind hungry. I knew the missing pieces would be delivered to me, but I did not know the vehicle. How could I know it would be Léon?"

The inventor paid a brief visit to Vkhutemas on his way to Germany under the guise of selling the patent to his Termenvox. (Years later, Theremin revealed that he was under orders to spy on the German firm.) While at the studio, Theremin was so taken with Grygar's designs that he corralled her in the dining hall and peppered her with questions about her "aesthetics of God". In his journal, the following day, Theremin confessed, "I am looking forward to sleeping through my first day's journey because Miss Grygar and I sacrificed an entire night to the discussion of wireless image transmission."

Shortly after Theremin's visit, Konstantin Melnikov contrived the Soviet pavilion for the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, and he tapped Rodchenko for design elements that would evoke the aesthetics of Communist ideology. Rodchenko took Grygar with him to help assemble a conceptual model of his Worker's Club. Grygar was willing to play stage hand in Rodchenko's theatre, but she was also wise enough to answer when opportunity knocked, so she entered her most recent student project, a 1:50 scale model of a psuedo-Suprematist chapel that garnered enthusiastic public acclaim, yet won no awards. Public outcry over alleged political machinations echoed across the continent. In a special report for Frankfurter Zeitung, Joseph Roth condemned the exposition's oversight, opining, "it is shameful how the jurors pander to State desires by politicizing these students' talent."

The clamor made little difference to Grygar, who gave no credence to medals and ribbons. She traded ideas with scholars from around the world, and while speaking with an English ceramics student she learned about John Logie Baird's incorporation of photoelectric cells and signal conditioning circuits into his experiments to transmit moving images using radio frequencies. Grygar felt, "God was writing a message on the wall in flaming letters."

Back in Moscow, her fellow students hailed Grygar as something of a hero, but she noticed a frosty reception from her instructors. Rodchenko gave her a mild scolding in front of the rector for putting individual pride before the collective good of the school, but privately praised her for showing such brass. She was still basking in the glow of her success when rumor of a state ordered shake-up reached the students. In 1926, the school was reorganized under a new rector who would not abide an upstart girl with lingering religious affiliations. Rodchenko urged her to resign from the program before the rector had an opportunity to file formal disciplinary actions.

Grygar agreed that leaving was the wisest course, and although she was bitter over being forced to forsake her VKhutemas family, her adventure at the Paris Exposition had put her in touch with Hannes Meyer, who brazenly asked if he might, "lure her significant talents away from the Central Committee by offering a scholarship to Staatliches Bauhaus." Grygar accepted the circumstances as a necessary intercession, and with a letter of recommendation from Rodchenko in hand she took a train to Dessau to collect on Meyer's offer.

Bauhaus proved philosophically similar to Vkhutemas, and the studio's focus on aesthetics that embraced the practicality of mass production encouraged Grygar to apply her theories in different media. She experimented with laminates and glass, producing sleek cabinetry that Walter Gropius said, "evoked sensations of a glacier crushing a pine forest."

Meyer took over directorship in 1928 and offered Grygar a fellowship position. She accepted on the condition that the school would fund a research sabbatical to the United States, and Meyer agreed to the deal immediately. In the U.S., Grygar toured Bell Laboratories, interviewed Herbert Ives, Philo Farnsworth, and Nikola Tesla - who was working on his theories of ocean thermal energy conversion at the time. Tesla later quipped that Grygar would have been, "the greatest mind in the Western world, were it not for her infatuation with the properties of God."

Grygar believed, "the United States delivered the final pieces of the puzzle. All I needed was a place to fit them together." On her return to Dessau, Grygar drafted plans for a radio technology department that would expand both the physical and theoretical envelope of artistic and practical applications of electricity. Grygar kept her personal motivations to herself, and Meyer believed her idea would improve the school's financial position, so he lobbied for the department. Unfortunately, Meyer's simultaneous encouragement of a Communist student union threatened the political viability of the school, and in the summer of 1930, Walter Gropius fired him. The subsequent purge of all perceived Communist influences meant that Grygar once again had to leave her family.

Rather than return to the Soviet Union, "a place that held no further opportunities," Grygar booked passage to the United States and reunited with Theremin, who had set up a laboratory in New York. Theremin had also firmly established his niche in electronic music, but he encouraged Grygar's experiments with radio technology. Grygar discovered her own career niche, concentrating her design and electronics experience on the development of a viable wireless remote control for Philco. Her work for the radio manufacturer gave her access to the materials, facilities and manpower she needed to develop her vision.

"I gathered the brightest members of research and development - Rachel, Woody, the two Davids and Karl - in an on-site laboratory the company set aside for my personal use. The rest of the department referred to us as 'the cabal'." The cabal assembled a prototype viewing-device that incorporated off-the-shelf components in a chunky case with a hand-made cathode ray tube hastily attached to the top. After seven days of adjustments and fine-tuning, Grygar and her lab partners watched a figure walk across the screen and vanish into static. "They all stood there, slack-jawed. So I slapped Woody's cheek and sent him to fetch a camera. I knew I had finally unlocked the door." The cabal tuned in the figure twice more before the tubes overloaded, and Woody captured a single off-kilter photograph (fig.1) of a face that Grygar knew, "was not from this plane of existence."

The next day she sent everyone home while she refined her schematics, telling them, "savor this time off because the hard work is just beginning." After two weeks, she re-convened the cabal and began work on Mark-II, a sleek, completely custom fabricated device. Nine months of work went into the unit, Grygar insisting on the strictest tolerances, down to the screws used to attach the cabinet hinges.

Woody stood ready with the camera as Rachel powered up the generator. Although he shot three rolls of film, not a single photo taken while the unit was operating could be developed. Grygar's journal, however, contains a chilling account of the event.

"The most sublime figure materialized on the screen, its eyes gazing casually off to our right. Rachel gasped, and the figure looked at us! It knew we were watching. Then...then it reached for me with the most fearsome hand I have yet seen. I knew those fingers too well, for I had lost them when I was a girl, and I knew I had miscalculated, I knew I was not gazing upon a being of heaven but something that nonetheless did not belong here on earth. I ripped the power feed from the generator, killing the connection."

The single piece of concrete evidence that anything odd happened in that lab was Mark-II itself, and Grygar destroyed it with a sledgehammer she snatched from a contractor installing new conduit in the building. However, Woody snuck one photograph (fig.2) of Mark-II before Grygar consigned it to oblivion. The clear imprint left in the glass must have haunted Grygar relentlessly, doubly so as an ironic reminder of her childhood encounter with the landmine that took her own right hand.

Grygar abandoned her quest and vowed to never again meddle in the supernatural. She continued to work with Philco until 1956, when she resigned after disagreements with the board of directors. Grygar claimed that the company stole designs from her personal experiments, although a court upheld Philco's claim that all her work contractually belonged to the company. Regardless of Philco's moral standing, it is clear that the company had access to her experimental work. Distinct elements of her Mark-II design can be found in Predicta televisions of 1957. Ironically, the public strongly disliked the Predicta models, which simply did not sell, and the company fell into bankruptcy in 1960.

Shortly before her death in 1994, Grygar revisited her television experiments. She purchased a derelict Predicta at an estate sale, and, with the help of Woody and one of the two Davids, she refitted it with contemporary microcircuitry arranged according to her newly revised schematics. According to the two remaining members of the cabal who watched her power up the unit in her living room, the hybrid set tuned in a well-defined duotone image, and for 28 minutes Grygar interacted with an animated, yet obviously non-human, entity on the other side of the glass.

Neither the two men nor Grygar said anything else about the event, her journal is blank for several days before and after that night, and no one has found her schematics or the hybrid set. When Woody passed away in 1997, his effects included one tantalizing clue, a recent Polaroid (fig.3) of a Predicta television with an anomalous duotone image projected on its screen.