10 Charming, Old-Timey Spy Gadgets

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy comes out in theaters today, injecting a little nostalgia into the techno-thriller spy genre. Although spycraft today involves computer hacking and surveillance drones, today we're paying homage to spy equipment from history. Some of it deserves respect for its ingenuity. Some just deserves a laugh. Check out ten ancient pieces of spy gear.

10. The Jack-in-the-Box

Some where, at some time, some poor slob who worked for the CIA had to walk into an adult toy store and buy a bunch of blow-up dolls. Just like they show in the movies, spycraft involved a lot of people in cars following other people in cars, usually at night. Concealing when people got into and out of those cars was a priority, and so blow-up dolls were considered as a way to make up the numbers when one person ducked out of the car. The dolls were rejected, though. They inflated too slowly to be of use. (Also I imagine the inflation process would be somewhat awkward.) Instead, agencies used a lower-tech solution. A simple silhouette, folded in a briefcase and put up quickly, looked enough like a person to fool someone in a trailing car at night. Sadly, the most successful recorded use of these was made by Edward Lee Hopper, a guy who sold secrets to the USSR, and, when found out, used this to distract his pursuers well enough that he could escape.


9. The Kiss of Death

Single shot lipstick gun. Yes, this actually was a thing. No, no one will actually admit that they shot anyone with it. The cruelest sting of all, at least from my perspective, is that the KGB used it. Yes, I was still a child when the Cold War ended, and yes, shooting people isn't supposed to be a good thing ever, but I can't repress just a little flash of disappointment that no one on 'our' side came up with that blend of wickedness and style.


8. Poison tipped umbrellas

Umbrellas tipped with capsules of ricin were common ways to assassinate people publicly. The pellet was loaded into the tip of a metal umbrella which could be carried down the street inconspicuously (at least on cloudy days) until in range of the target. Then a quick jab would embed the deadly poison under the skin and the jabber could walk away. In a crowded area, it would be difficult to single anyone out. Admittedly, I wouldn't like to kill anyone, but from Gene Kelly to Rihanna, who doesn't love dancing around with an umbrella? If the James Bond franchise ever does a musical, this needs to be a prop.


7. Rats, rats, and rats

No one is too surprised to see a rat; not in cities, not in the country, and not in war. Generally, though, no one wants to touch a rat, especially a dead one. As such, rats have made ideal spy gear, or at least, spy-gear-cozies. Rats have been killed, skinned, and draped around secret messages, much-needed equipment, or high explosives. During World War II it was thought that exploding rats could be used to blow up German boilers. Sadly, these last rats were quickly discovered.


6. The Olive Microphone

The swinging sixties were a wild time, a time when no one in college was without copious amounts of body hair and no one in power was without a martini glass. In one martini glass, demonstrated at a senate committee hearing, was an olive microphone with a toothpick antenna. This particular 'bug' was a force for good, convincing the committee to re-examine the laws about surveillance. But the idea is so crazy that it makes me think of a possible Twilight Zone episode. Two 'ambassadors' are to be locked in a bunker with paper and food supplies for three months, to broker a lasting peace between the United States and the USSR. Officials on our side are so suspicious that they replace the ambassador with a spy and their supplies with bugs. "Just say you'll eat his food," they say. The spy goes in, only to find out that the other side has done the same thing, and instead of making 'peace' they'll starve to death because both countries wanted to prepare for war. (It could work. Oh, like "It's a cookbook," was such a great revelation.)


5. Exploding Coal

This 'gadget' is satisfying in its history and in its simplicity. Anything is just a little stylish when it's done by Resistance fighters in World War II. Add some irony to it, and even a lump of explosives made to look like coal gets glamorous. Resistance workers made simple lumps of explosives and either rolled them in coal dust or covered them in coal pellets. They then simply dropped them into coal hods and waited for the Nazis to shovel them into their own train boilers. When the explosives did what they were made to do, they took out the train's engine, delaying it.


4. The Spartan Scytale

This . . . is . . . Sparta! But don't talk about it. The scytale was one of the oldest spy gadgets on record. It wasn't subtle by modern standards - it may not even have been subtle by ancient standards - but then the Spartans weren't known for subtlety. It was a simple strip of letter that was wrapped around a hexagonal — or pentagonal, or septagonal — stick, so that it completely covered the stick like a long strip of wrapping paper. The message was printed along the length of the stick, and then the belt was unwrapped. It appeared to be a simple belt with a long series of letters, until it was wrapped around a stick of the same shape and diameter, at which point the message could be read again.


3. Exploding Bread

Who could not love this? "Aunt Jemima" was a powdered explosive that was made to look and smell like whole wheat flour. It must have been tough to set off, because it could actually be moistened, turned into a round baguette, and then baked into a loaf. I imagine this substance could double as a suicide pill, if it needed to. (I'd still want to try a piece, but I'd try to get my fellow spy to try one first.)


2. The Eagle's Hollow Nostril

In 1945, a group called The Young Pioneers had presented a seal of the United States to the Embassy in Moscow. In 1952, a group found a hollowed out space in the Eagle's nostril. Just in front of the hollow space was a flexible membrane. As sounds were made in the office, the membrane would vibrate. A radio signal from across the street could track the vibrations, and whatever was being said in that office could be extracted from the signal. The bug was simple, small, and required no power source. That nostril listened in on three different ambassadors before it was discovered.


1. Acoustic Kitty

This can never stop being the best spy scheme in the world. A cat was split open (with surgery) and stuffed with a radio, and had its tail wired so it could turn into an antenna. The cat recovered from surgery — Done by a staff of CIA veterinarians, I suppose — and was trained to go up to people and sit quietly beside them. It was also specially trained to ignore the many distractions that most cats chase after. At last, after millions of dollars worth of medical, technical, and training services, it was released a safe distance away from two surveillance targets. Sure of its mission, it went straight for the targets . . . and was struck by a taxi and immediately killed. The project was abandoned, or so they say. Every pet in your home could be wired right now. Hell, have you ever had your appendix out? Your tonsils? They might be inside you. To check, go outside and see if you get the urge to throw yourself in front of a taxi.


Skytale: Luringen

Seal Photo: 123RF.

Rat: Memelodia

Via History.com, The History Channel, Beacon Bulletin, Rollingstone, CIA.gov, and Forbes.