20th Century's Spy Technologies at the World's First Spy Museum

Spy technology has always fascinated humanity. Those spy gadgets that once were used in real spy missions are on display at the world's first Spy Museum in Finland. The visit is also an opportunity to test your spying skills.
Susan Fourtané
Spy Museum Tampere/All Photos: ©Emiliano Verrocchio Photography, special for Interesting Engineering 

Anyone who has watched each and every James Bond movie knows about spy gadgets. Perhaps during those 007 classic movie marathons, you have wondered about one genius spy gadget or two.

Or perhaps Ian Fleming's charismatic and adventurous character got you interested in real-world espionage, intelligence, and encryption. Whatever the case, you are sure to enjoy a day at the Spy Museum in Tampere, Finland.

The Spy Museum in Finland opened to the public in the summer of 1998. It was the world's first spy museum dedicated exclusively to espionage. This year, the Spy Museum celebrated its 20th anniversary. 

Two years later, in 2000, a sister museum, the International Spy Museum, opened its doors in Washington, D.C. 


The Spy Museum in Tampere has a vast collection of original and functional artifacts and documentation ranging from the First World War through the end of the Cold War. A visit to the museum is both entertaining and educational. 

Things such a bug detector catches your attention instantly, a receiver developed by Siemens and Halske AG in the 1930s, can search for or amplify voices in the wall or behind it. Gestapo and SD used the device for eavesdropping and for the exposure of bugging devices.

You just need to be careful if you step in front of it with your smartphone. The device is actively working and might detect some irregular activity coming from your phone. 

spy museum in Tampere, Finland ©Emiliano Verrocchio
Spy Museum in Tampere, Finland/ Photo: ©Emiliano Verrocchio, special for Interesting Engineering 

Many of the technologies that intelligence agencies and security firms use today were born during the Cold War. Encryption, radio communications, and cipher machines played a paramount role in World War I and World War II as well as surveillance.

We could safely say that nothing has changed since then; except that all those technologies are much more advanced today. As background, let's dive into a little history and try to understand the economics and motivation behind so many years at war. 

From World War I through the end of the Cold War, all in three minutes:

First World War (WWI) (1914-1918) 

Second World War (WWII) (1939-1945)

The Cold War (1947-1991) 


You get the picture. With so much at stake, everyone wanted to develop the most ingenious possible spy gadgets that could help them be a step ahead of the plans of the enemy. Some of those spy technologies are on display at the Spy Museum in Tampere.  


"Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action." - Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series of spy novels 

Perhaps one of the first forms of spying on other's conversations. In both WW1 and WW2 as well as during the Cold War, wiretapping activities were done using different types of devices. From micro-tapes to tiny microphones in a wristwatch secrets and plans were recorded and used against the enemy. 

Perhaps one of the most curious spy devices at the Spy Museum is a microphone wristwatch that was used by the CIA in the 1950s and the 1960s and is now part of the permanent exhibition. The watch, which did not show the time, was linked to a recorder or radio transmitter that was in the pocket of the agent.  

NATO toxic suit  

NATO toxic suit ©Emiliano Verrocchio
NATO toxic suit in exhibition at the Spy Museum Tampere, Finland/ Photo: ©Emiliano Verrocchio, special for Interesting Engineering 

The Spy Museum also exhibits a NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) toxic suit complete with its mask. There is an implication about the fears of humanity at the time of a possible biological war. 

The NATO toxic suit was conceived as a way to protect its wearer against chemical and biological toxins. There is also a display of radiation meters.

If the wearer of one of these suits happened to see the indicator moving into the yellow section of the dial, they could be pretty sure there were in a lot of trouble. 

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Enigma machine 

enigma machine at Spy Museum Tampere ©photo by Emiliano Verrocchio
Enigma Machine in exhibition at the Spy Museum Tampere, Finland/ Photo: ©Emiliano Verrocchio, special for Interesting Engineering 

This Enigma-E machine displayed at the Spy Museum Tampere is a digital version of the legendary wartime cipher Enigma-M4 of Nazi Germany. 

The Enigma-E is fully digital without analog rotators. However, it functions exactly the same way the original Enigma-M4 does. The messages can be deciphered onto a monitor using the d-sub socket attached to the back of the wooden case. 

The Enigma-E has the capacity to communicate with any Enigma model such as past war versions and the 1930s Enigma-M3

Briefcase radio transmitter: Who would've thought?!

A typical self-made portable radio transmitter that is made of American and German parts. This unit in the photo has served as a communications device for the so-called weapons cache case after the World War II. 

The range of the transmitter can be hundreds of kilometers in optimal circumstances. On the left side of the transmitter's original briefcase, there is a transformer, a modulator in the middle, and the actual transmitter with the Morse key is on the right side. 

Dead letter drops

spy museum ©Emiliano Verrocchio
Dead letter drop at Spy Museum Tampere/ Photo: ©Emiliano Verrocchio, special for Interesting Engineering 

The Statute book of the Police might not be what it looks like. It was one of the many objects that spies used as a dead letter drop. 

Dead letter drops enabled spies to deliver money and documents to each other secretly, without meeting face-to-face which could be too risky. Cobble deposits and kilometer posts were used as dead letter drops.

In a city, a dead letter drop could be a chambered brick which could easily be removed from the wall, or simply a gap in the wall. The most important thing about a dead letter drop is that is located in a public place so it is easy to visit for anyone who knows the spot. 

Being in a public place, if a dead letter drop was revealed it was not connected to anybody unless the spy had been followed. In a private house, many things could be used as a dead letter drop. A hollow cloth brush, the back plate of a mirror, a hollow book, or any kind of secret safe are some examples of dead letter drop. 

A tape recorder, some documents, weapons, or other tools could be hidden inside a book. In this matter, the important thing was that the book looked conventional or dull so that occasional friends visiting would not have any interest leafing through it. 

A hollow book is a classic dead letter drop situated inside a house. You may even create one yourself today to hide your secrets. The spies tried to choose as boring seeming books as possible, so that the dead letter drop would not be revealed. Secrets hidden at plain sight are always the best. 

The world's most legendary spy cameras are on display at the Spy Museum 

While living in Tallinn, Estonia, Baltic-German engineer Walter Zapp designed an advanced miniature camera. The first country Zapp decided to patent the camera in was Finland, in 1936. 

Minox's first Riga model was manufactured in Latvia, in 1938. The picture size of the film that the camera originally used was 6.5 x 9mm. Later, it was changed to 8 x 11mm.

Minox quickly became very popular among espionage and intelligence organizations. While the world was twisting in the hands of war, the manufacturing of Minox was temporarily moved to Germany and to other locations in the Soviet Union. 

Minox miniature camera was invented by Walter Zapp in the 1930s. Because of its small size and high-quality, it became an instant hit among spies. John Walker, who spied U.S. Navy secrets to the Soviets, took approximately one million secret photos with Minox.

Morse code

morse code
Me, decrypting a Morse code message at the Spy Museum in Tampere, Finland/ Photo: ©Emiliano Verrocchio, special for Interesting Engineering 

Morse code is a communications language created by Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail. It was originally used with the telegraph.

It works using standardized sequences of short and long elements to represent letters, numerals, punctuation, and special characters of a message. 

Over a century ago, in 1903, one of the world's first hackers used Morse code insults to disrupt a public demo of Italian radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi's wireless telegraph. 

Female agents: Mata Hari: A spy for the Germans, or a victim of the circumstances?

female spy lipstick with microfilm compartment
Lipstick with a microfilm secret compartment and mirror for female spies in exhibition at the Spy Museum/ Photo: ©Emiliano Verrocchio, special for Interesting Engineering

The Spy Museum exhibits a lipstick with a microfilm secret compartment that female spies used to carry a secret film. The small mirror could be used for sending signals or for checking if someone was following them.

It was also used for lip-reading while the spy was pretending she was applying lipstick. Later, some brands adopted the small mirror in their lipsticks. You can still find them today. 

Many female spies have had great influence in the world. However, perhaps the most famous spy of all times was the Dutch Margaretha Zelle. She was, in fact, a dead drop. Known by her stage name of Mata Hari, she was an exotic dancer and --perhaps-- a spy for Germany during the First World War. However, there is some controversy about this. 

There was not much evidence about her supposedly spying or the magnitude of it. Some believe she was only doing anything she could to get by in life, was a victim of the circumstances, and died for it. The truth is, no one will ever know the truth.

Mata Hari was convicted of being a spy for Germany and executed by a firing squad in France in October, 1917. She was only 41 years old.  

Later, a historian declared that “there was enough evidence to sentence her to jail for having been recruited by the Germans, but execution ... She didn’t deserve that.” For the historian, Mata Hari’s end served the purposes of the French state’s propaganda of the era.

Also in the exhibition, there is a golden and ingenious ring from the early 1900s which has an engraving MZ on it. Margaretha Zelle's initials. The ring has a secret compartment that can be filled with a lethal poison. 

According to some, the golden ring might have been brought from Germany to Mata Hari by an SS-man. History tells that it could have been Mata Hari herself who has escorted her partners to sleep with the help of the ring's contents.

Besides different kinds of knockout drops, cyanide and ricin were the most common actual poisons used in espionage. 

Second World War (WWII) intelligence office

WWII intelligence office
WWII intelligence office and equipment in exhibition at the Spy Museum/ Photo: ©Emiliano Verrocchio, special for Interesting Engineering

The human contribution has been and still is the most important factor in espionage. A work-room of the WWII time shows an intelligence officer and his equipment. 

The equipment usually included, among many other things, a Wormbox cypher device, Hell-teleprinter, and a radio station AS 405, which contains an L 403 transmitter (Aki) and on the basis of Veera modified V-471 receiver.

The Wormbox

The Wormbox is a cipher device used in the Second World War. It was called the Wormbox because it was a plain plywood box full of paper strips. Every strip was the cipher key of the day.

Although the device looked very simple comparing to others at the time, it had exceptional security strength. 

The code of the Wormbox was one of those rare encrypting methods which remained unbroken during the war. They used two kinds of Wormboxes: A tall one and a short one that is on the officer's desk.

Sanla replaced the Wormbox in the 1980s. The m75 was the last application of the Wormbox and it's from the end of the 1970s. It was mainly in patrol use by then.


SEO-British Agent, British Vampire parachute, and folding skies of a parachutist at the Spy Museum/Photo: ©Emiliano Verrocchio, special for Interesting Engineering

Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a British wartime organization in the 1940s. It was responsible for illegal strikes that the government did not want to give to its own special troops. Winston Churchill, who was the British Prime Minister at the time, said their mission was to "set Europe ablaze."    

An SOE-agent was dropped by a parachute into enemy territory and when safely on the ground the parachute and jumpsuit were buried. Then, the agent contacted the counter-revolutionary movement. Under his jumpsuit, an agent was wearing casual clothes.

Personal things such as clothes for changing and a briefcase full of documents were carried in the inside pocket of his jumpsuit between his back and the parachute rack. This way both his hands were left free.

An agent carried a flare gun which included a Webley or Enfield revolver and also often a Sten machine gun. This agent in the photo is holding a light pistol, and he could inform of his location to his or her contact with a shot.

Secret Agent Test: Or, how to become like 007

spy museum tampere agent test ©Emiliano Verrocchio
Spy Museum Tampere: Agent Test and little Alpha Lilia spying/Photo: ©Emiliano Verrocchio, special for Interesting Engineering

A playful Secret Agent Test is one of the main attractions at the Spy Museum.

Adults and children alike enjoy the interactive, hands-on test, ending the day certified as a spy with a recommendation to one of the most important international intelligence agencies.

The recommendation depends on the score of the test. The Agent test is available to groups or individuals, and it's a lot of fun. 

Spy Museum-invisible ink ©Emiliano Verrocchio
Writing a secret message with invisible ink at the Spy Museum/ Photo: ©Emiliano Verrocchio, special for Interesting Engineering

As part of the Agent test, visitors have to write a secret message using invisible ink and then find the right tool on the desk to reveal it. 

Generation Alphas Lilia and Lukas loved it so much that their parents bought them their own invisible ink pen at the museum.  

The test lasts for approximately 45 minutes. It all depends on your spying skills and intuition.

During the test, agents can use a voice changer, a metal detector, pick a lock, crack a safe, decipher a Morse code secret message, find a secret room, roam in a dark tunnel finding clues, prevent an attacker with a pistol,  and spy on other visitors through a see-through mirror. 

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