The History Of Spy Gadgets And Our Fascination With 007
It's easy for us to get engrossed in a James Bond movie or any other depiction of spies and tell ourselves it's all just fiction, but that's not entirely true.
While it's accurate to say that many spy tools portrayed by Hollywood probably haven't and won't ever show up in the real world, there have still been some pretty fascinating gadgets throughout the years that have helped us spy on one another and gather intel.
It's no wonder we love Bond and his slick ways so much!
While the industry is constantly innovating to try to stay one step ahead of its ever-evolving enemy, it didn't start with computer networks and aerial surveillance.
The history of spies actually has its roots in ancient times.
Spy Gadgets in B.C. Times
The history of spy gadgets goes back a lot further than you might think. In 500 B.C., the Spartans and ancient Greeks were using their own form of 007 devices called scytales.
These tools took the form of cylinders wrapped in parchment or another available material, and they contained messages that needed to be communicated during military campaigns.
All the recipient would have to do to decipher the code was to place the material over a rod of similar size. Clever, huh?
In 1466, Italian painter and architect Leon Battista Alberti invented what was dubbed the Alberti Cipher. It's thought to be one of the first polyalphabetic ciphers ever created, and it allowed messages to be easily written as well as later decoded.
The cipher contained two disks engraved with letters, which were laid over one another for the sake of creating and decoding the messages.
Spy Gadgets in The 1700s
The 1700s saw a few more significant developments in the industry, including both "silver bullets" — probably not what you think — and sympathetic stain.
Silver bullets (1776)
Silver bullets were small — about the size of a musket ball — hollow objects that could be used for the concealment of messages. They weren't conspicuous since they were so tiny, which meant they could be hidden easily and even swallowed.
Some spies found out the hard way — through lead poisoning and death — that the swallowing had to come after an engineering improvement that eliminated lead from the design.
Sympathetic stain (1778)
This invisible ink was developed by Dr. James Jay, brother to John Jay, who was the nation's first chief justice of the Supreme Court. One chemical was used to write a message, while another had to be employed to decipher it.
Jay gave the ink to Silas Deane — a major revolutionary agent operating out of France — and George Washington. From London to the Americas, this sympathetic stain aided in the inscription of secret messages.
One of the next great spying gadgets was developed by the Confederate Secret Service in 1864 and dubbed the "coal torpedo." It consisted of a hollowed-out iron casting filled with explosives and disguised with paint as a piece of coal.
Documents that confirmed attacks with these torpedos were burned, but it's believed that a number of ships were brought down by them.
The 1900s: Spy Gadgets Evolve
The 1900s — as you probably expect based on technological developments and historical events — saw many evolutions in spy tools, including those listed below. In terms of the history of spy gadgets, this century was one of the most interesting.
Pigeon cameras (1916)
Pigeons have been used left and right throughout history to take photographs, carry messages and more. In World War I, both sides' armies outfitted pigeons with cameras for reconnaissance photos.
The U.S. Army's Cher Ami carried 12 important messages that saved hundreds of allied lives, earning the distinguished Croix de Guerre from the French Army.
Board and card game devices (1940s)
Both playing cards and Monopoly were used to fake out the enemy and hide secret information throughout World War II. British and U.S. intelligence agencies worked with the United States Playing Card Co. to embed secret maps into cards, which were later soaked to split and reveal the map.
The fake board game sets contained files, maps, and compasses, and they were distinguished by a red dot located on the "free parking" space. We knew that space was good for something!
The Microdot Camera (1960s)
This camera is hailed as one of the most crucial spy cameras of all time. It could photograph documents and reproduce them the size of miniature dots.
People could later conceal these dots inside letters, rings, pens or other objects, reading them with a microscope when the need arose.
Rectal escape kits (1960s)
While this one has a bit of an uncomfortable factor, it served its purpose for a time. It was a small capsule distributed by the CIA and given to agents to be hidden in their rectums.
It contained small files, picks and other blunt- and serrated-edge objects that could help spies escape custody.
Lipstick pistol (1965)
A 4.5 mm firearm cleverly concealed inside a tube of lipstick, the Kiss of Death was reportedly carried by KGB agents.
T11-51 dog doo transmitter (1970s)
Disguised as dog poop to keep people from engaging, this radio transmitter and a homing device was used by the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War to convey supply movements at night.
Cyanide glasses (1970s)
The CIA developed these glasses in the '70s for American captives. The tips of them had cyanide pellets inside, and Americans facing extreme interrogation and torture for information and secrets could chew through the glasses to kill themselves instead.
Bulgarian umbrella (1978)
This umbrella was tipped with ricin, which could be deployed with just a quick jab. The Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was killed with this tool in 1978 by an unidentified person.
Robot fish Charlie (1999)
James Pond, anyone? This little guy was a catfish-shaped experiment intended to explore the possibilities of aquatic robot technology.
He was unmanned and controlled by a wireless line-of-sight radio handset, and he was supposed to collect water samples near sensitive aquatic sites like nuclear reactors without getting caught or detected in any way.
Spy Gadgets Today
Human agents aren't used today as much as tools like unmanned spy planes, satellites, and electronic surveillance. Security threats are less clearly defined and often take form online much more often than in the physical world.
This modern era sees cyber sleuthing stepping into the espionage role with tools like:
The National Security Agency's Nightstand enables spies to deliver cyberattacks from up to eight miles away by breaking into Wi-Fi networks.
This tool looks like your everyday, run-of-the-mill USB cord, but it's much more than that. It acts as a wireless bridge to target networks, sneaking in to exploit individual computers and wreaking havoc from there.
Our 007 Roots — Not so Fictional
The examples on this list are by no means exhaustive, but they cover some of the great innovations that spurred further development and evolution in spy gear.
What's more, these items are only the tools we know about. There were more than likely a great number of other weapons, devices, and gadgets that helped us catch bad guys, reveal enemy plans and complete top-secret missions.
James Bond would be proud.