We look at ten ingenious and sometimes downright ludicrous spy gadgets produced in the 20th century.
When you think of the classic spy, you imagine a James Bond-esque gentleman, with a crisp tuxedo and plenty of weapons in his arsenal. Nowadays, you can envisage the spy searching through surveillance footage and hacking into databases. But before it was easy as pie, there was a flood of gadgets and equipment designed to outwit, infiltrate - and kill. In the classic days of espionage, spies had to rely on their wit, sneakiness and devices designed to help them fulfil their missions. From the miniscule to the devious, we take a look at some of the contraptions that a practised spy could use well before the coming of the digital age.
1. Poison cigarette/umbrella dart
During the Cold War a popular way of removing ‘threats to national security’ was with poison, in gas or pellet form. Specialists at this were the Soviet secret services, which set up covert chemical warfare labs to research alternatives to their standard brutal ‘wet jobs’. Among a variety of nasty but efficient and virtually untraceable methods was the much favoured poison-gas cigarette packet - hiding a device that fired a single-shot cartridge containing a glass vial of acid. The firing motion crushed the glass, causing the acid to vaporise in the victim’s face - while a cleverly placed mesh caught the splinters thereby erasing evidence.
The big favourite was the umbrella dart gun. Its most famous victim was Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov who, in 1978, was zapped in the thigh by a secret agent on Waterloo Bridge, in London. When he died four days later a perplexed pathologist dug out a pinhead-sized metal pellet, technically no more damaging than a ball bearing. Except that this pellet was coated with a special wax that melted at body temperature, releasing the then new super-poison ricin.
2. Minox subminiature camera
The mother of all spy cameras was first manufactured in Riga in 1938 for the consumer market but was quickly appropriated by intelligence agencies because of its petite size, precision engineering and incredible versatility. The original version, designed by Latvian engineer Walter Zapp, used film one-quarter the size of standard 35mm with 50 frames per cassette which, with the later addition of a high-res lens and shutter speeds of ½ to 1/1000 second, allowed extraordinary detail to be obtained from the tiny negatives. The most popular version was the Model B produced from 1958 to 1972. It was the first model to have a built-in light meter; it also had a miniature Coke can-sized developing tank, thermometer and negative viewer so that spies could develop film on the hoof. Even more handily the Minox didn’t need batteries and was small enough to be easily concealed.
3. Coin Blade
Initially developed to help POWs in escape attempts during World War II, coin blades were also quickly adopted by spies and airmen operating behind enemy lines. The theory was that when jangling around with regular loose change, the coin blade was likely to go unnoticed if frisked, and it might well be accessible even if an operative’s hands were bound. With minimum dexterity the piece could be separated into two halves to expose the blade, with the coin sections providing a solid grip handle for wielding surreptitiously in one hand. An essential component of every spy’s kit until the 1970s, coin blades have recently experienced something of a resurgence among private ‘security’ companies, not least because they can easily pass through airport security checks.
4. Soap case concealment
The StB (otherwise known as State Security in former Czechoslovakia) invented a range of devices, like the soap case, for couriers who carried confidential film. In the case, the film is wrapped around a flashbulb. If opened incorrectly, the bulb flashes and the film is ultimately destroyed. In order to open it safely, a magnet is placed underneath the case which pulls open a switch that turns off the flash.
First employed during the American Civil War, microdots didn’t really come into their own until after the Second World War, when pretty much every intelligence agency had developed its own micro-camera and reader kits. The KGB had a 7x12mm microdot camera for single exposures of less than 1mm - while readers ranged from pocket-microscopes to miniature viewers small enough to fit into a cigarette. Given that a microdot is about the size of your average newspaper full stop and can hold an entire A4 document, in the pre-digital era they were the perfect way to transfer intelligence covertly. Dots turned up embedded on stamps, in books, rings, cufflinks - and even in modified teeth. Or in the case of KGB spy Rudolph Abel, (famously exchanged for captured U2 pilot Gary Powers) hidden under the staples of magazines posted to a PO box in Paris.
6. KGB 4.5mm single-shot pistol
In the field of espionage, secret weapons may tilt the balance between mission accomplished and aborted. Concealment means small and innocuous, and during the Cold War all intelligence agencies became experts at adapting everyday items into deadly weapons. Particularly adept were the KGB who came up with a range of basic, one-shot pistols that let an operative get close to their victim without arousing suspicion. This 4.5mm single-shot device was disguised variously as a pocket torch, a lipstick, or rubber-sheathed pod for concealment in the rectum. The firing mechanism was the same for each: holding the base and twisting the ‘barrel’ a quarter of a turn. This firing method best suited the lipstick version - although no one is willing to verify if it really did earn its ‘kiss of death’ nickname.
7. Tree stump bug
In the early 1970s, while the Nixon administration was covertly modifying desk lamps in the offices of political opponents, its overseas US intelligence operatives were taking innocuous audio surveillance devices to a whole new level.
Adapting a bug originally employed by Special Ops during World War 2, agents concealed a device in an artificial tree stump in woods outside Moscow to intercept communications signals from a nearby Soviet missile base.
The signals were stored, then beamed to a satellite passing overhead, which in turn transmitted them to a site in the US.
The bug could function continuously, because the top of the tree stump, which appeared opaque, was actually transparent and enabled sunlight to filter through and charge solar batteries - negating the need for risky battery-replacing night manoeuvres.
Despite its ingenious disguise, the device was eventually discovered by the KGB. The unit that can be seen in the International Spy Museum in Washington DC is a replica.
8. CD 57 cipher machine
The CD 57 was a hand-held mechanical cipher machine designed initially for the French secret police by Swedish mechanical engineer Boris Hagelin in 1957. Measuring only 137x80x40mm and weighing about a kilogram, its die-cast aluminium casing housed rotatable key wheels and an alphabet disc that functioned via a thumb-operated lever grip. Given that it was compatible with Hagelin’s earlier revolutionary desktop CX-52 cipher machine and could easily be shoved into the pocket of a trench coat, it was used globally by secret services and military until the late 1970s - and also by the Vatican, for which Hagelin produced a special gold and ivory version. So successful were Hagelin’s mechanical crypto devices that when he died at the age of 91 in 1983 he was the world’s only cipher-machine millionaire.
9. Mk.123 suitcase transceiver
A compact, self-contained, valve-based transceiver, the UK’s Mk.123 could transmit and receive encoded messages anywhere in the world. Designed by Steve Dorman of the Special Communications Unit, GCHQ, it was introduced in 1955 and quickly snapped up by the SAS and MI6. Shipped in either a wooden transit box or a canvas carrying case, the 7kg metal-cased radio set operated on 2.5-20MHz and could be connected directly to a variety of mains AC voltages. Internally, it comprised a central PSU, a left-side receiver and a right-side transmitter, all mounted on an aluminium base plate. The crystal-driven transmitter could be operated via a built-in Morse key or an external key, and was capable of 40wpm. A mainstay of the espionage world until the early 1980s, the Mk.123 came into its own during a number of international incidents - notably when the British Embassy in Tehran was stormed and set alight by Iranian demonstrators in November 1978. With all power and communication lines cut, a staff member retrieved a hidden Mk.123 spy set and used encrypted Morse code on an emergency frequency to alert the British government.
10. Pigeon camera
The Office of Research and Development of the CIA pioneered a tiny camera which was small and light enough to be carried by a common pigeon. It would be fastened to the bird’s breast.
When released, the pigeon would fly over targets and a tiny battery-powered motor would set the camera to take photographs, either at once or after a preset delay. As the pigeon is an everyday species, its identity as an intelligence collection platform would be hidden in the midst of activities of many other birds. The imagery taken by the pigeon camera would be comparatively more detailed than other collection platforms, such as aircraft, because the bird could fly much closer to a target.