Stranger Than Fiction: The Evolution of Spy Tech
Art by Whiskey Radish
by B. Alexandra Szerlip
To understand how a frumpy, mustard-coloured, short-handled purse, which may or may not be leather, sold at auction in February for a whopping $32,000, it’s helpful to wander back to ancient Greece. According to Herodotus, the 5th century tyrant Histiaeus was the first to shave the head of an illiterate servant, have his scalp tattooed with a message, allow time for the hair to grow back, then send the poor fellow out to his destination, where a second head shaving waited.
What does this have to do with a 1950s-era, schoolmarmish handbag?
In a word: espionage. The practice of clandestinely obtaining (and disseminating) secret information in order to gain an advantage, often political, is likely as old as mankind itself. Thus have both benign and brutal regimes risen…and crashed.
In 11th century China, secret messages were written on silk, rolled up, coated with wax, and swallowed – with the understanding that they’d be ‘delivered’ within a day.
Using a technique attributed to the Spartans, Alexander the Great sent out communiques on strips of paper or leather wrapped around a baton. Unwound, the writing was illegible, until its recipient rewrapped it on a baton of the same circumference.
Leon Battista Alberti, a 15th century Italian painter, invented the earliest known cypher wheel, its 26 rotating discs employed in service to the Pope. Thomas Jefferson invented his own version in the early 1790s (an offshoot of which was still in use during the American Civil War). An ousted Marie Antoinette, meanwhile, was busy sending off hundreds of encrypted notes in an attempt to find refuge and reestablish the monarchy.
In the 16th century, the scientist Giovanni Porta described writing messages with vinegar and alum on the outer shells of hardboiled eggs. The ‘ink’ seeped through onto the egg whites, where it could only be read after the shell was removed. Particularly handy when slipping news, in the guise of foodstuffs, to incarcerated friends.
Prior to the invention of the microdot, invisible writing was crafted with everything from lemon juice, onions and milk to urine and copper sulphate. Such missives proved Mary Queen of Scots’ undoing when they were intercepted by Queen Elizabeth I’s official spymaster, Francis Walsingham, who also broke the code they were written in.
George Washington, who referred to invisible writing as “concealed beauties”, “diamonds” and “sympathetic stains”, was so dependent on an oak gall formula in his fight against the British that he had a small log cabin lab built for its manufacture. During WWI, the first director of British military intelligence (what became known as M16) had high hopes for semen. On the plus side: an ever-ready supply that didn’t react to the newly perfected iodine-vapour test (which revealed paper fibres that had been altered by any kind of moisture, acidic or otherwise). On the minus side: if not ‘freshly extracted’, it smelled. But most damning was that its use raised questions about the masturbatory habits – done in service to His Majesty! – of Britain’s secret agents.
Another of Mary’s tools was the ‘letter lock’, an elaborately ingenious system of folds, slits, tucks, sealing wax and needle threading that ensured correspondence could only be opened, without detection, by its designated recipient. The technique, in use for some 500 years, was so diverse in its application that a person’s ‘lock’ could, if desired, serve as an external signature.
The future MI6, along with the U.S., French, German and Belgian militaries, also relied on homing pigeons. Hundreds of thousands were trained to airlift messages anywhere from 200 to 1,000 miles, averaging a mile a minute. (Game of Thrones fans will recall the similar use of ravens.)
In 1916, the French began strapping tiny, primitive cameras to their avian recruits. “Too small to be hit with bullets” and flying “too high for the artillery and gas”, noted Popular Mechanics magazine, the vast majority of feathered messengers reached their destinations with reconnaissance photos intact. When the Germans took to sending up falcons to kill the Allied birds, the French placed bow-like whistles, activated by the wind, on the pigeons’ tails. One particularly stalwart American bird allegedly received France’s distinguished Croix de Guerre for having ‘singlehandedly’ helped save hundreds of human lives.
Cameras and tail whistles aside, it was an espionage technique familiar to the early Egyptians.
Though some European countries, not to mention Russia and China, had been ‘at it’ for centuries, organised U.S. intelligence didn’t manifest until the early days of WWII, when Washington D.C.’s policymakers finally acknowledged that their notions of warfare were dangerously obsolete. In 1929, then-Secretary of State Henry Stimson had justified shutting down his department’s code-breaking unit under the premise that “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.” (France’s cabinet noir, or “black chamber”, had been intercepting public correspondence, in the name of national security, since around 1600.) Wiretapping, though, had been commonplace in the U.S. for decades. While the practice was “revolting”, conceded WWI-era NYC Police Commissioner Arthur Woods, “you can’t always do detective work in a high hat and kid gloves.”
Meanwhile, Germany and France, as well as the U.S., were still relying on ‘invisible ink’ formulas that, complained one WWII CIA operative, “could have been used by Caesar during the Gallic Wars.”
As the war progressed, more creative approaches for outwitting the enemy were considered. Playing cards, carried along with mess kits by Allied soldiers, were embedded with secret maps. Monopoly board games, disseminated by international relief agencies to Allied POWs, were specially constructed to conceal everything from maps, compasses and files to gold and German currency.
But playing cards, pigeons and board games weren’t nearly enough against Nazi treachery, kamikaze pilots and the horrors dreamt up by Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, who took his nom de guerre (Stalin) from the Russian word for ‘steel’. Some Allied schemes – hatched in secret, and at considerable government expense – verged on the ludicrous. “If necessity is the mother of invention,” wrote espionage historian Vince Houghton, “desperation is the drunk uncle.”
Operation Fantasia (Radioactive Foxes)
In the wake of Pearl Harbor, the OSS (America’s wartime intelligence agency, modelled after Britain’s M16) encouraged the development of Psy-Ops – morale-destroying psychological methods. “In this war of machines,” noted OSS director William Donovan, “the human element is, in the long run, more important than the machines themselves.” In short, find ways to ‘out-fox’ the Japanese.
Some of Donovan’s colleagues took the suggestion literally.
Statues of kitsune – intelligent, often mischievous, fox spirits – are a common aspect of Shinto shrines. The OSS outlined a plan to capture live foxes in China and Australia, spray them with luminous paint (the radioactive kind used on watch dials), and release them throughout Japanese villages, where the gullible population would perceive them as bad omens run amok. A veterinarian at NYC’s Central Park Zoo was commandeered, in the name of patriotism, to find a way to get radioactive paint to adhere to animal fur.
The strategy was three-fold. Airdrop leaflets from planes, warning the Japanese of impending doom. Send in the foxes. Follow up with Allied agents, smeared with ‘fox odour’ scent, roaming the streets pretending they were possessed by evil fox spirits while simultaneously blowing whistles that simulated a fox-like “cry of the damned”.
As a test, thirty painted foxes were set loose, on a weekend, after dark, in Washington D.C.’s Rock Creek Park, where they proved their worth by confusing and terrifying the locals. But then: What if the foxes destined for Japan had to swim to shore? Would the paint prove waterproof? More experiments followed, including a backup scenario involving minks, muskrats, raccoons and coyotes.
It’s somehow impossible to imagine a remotely similar, government-sponsored scheme being hatched against the Germans. The OSS and America’s reputation in general were not to be battle (fox) tested, however, as Los Alamos’ bombs were dropped a few weeks before Operation Fantasia was scheduled to deploy.
Project X-ray (Bat Bombs)
Dr. Lyle Adams, a plump, white-haired, Pennsylvania dental surgeon, was driving back from a vacation trip to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico when inspiration struck. In the movie version, he’d be humming along to hit tunes on the car radio before the broadcast was interrupted by news of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Caverns were reputedly home to the world’s largest bat colony. Japan’s cities and towns were chockablock with paper and wood homes, the kind of places bats love to occupy. Ergo, bats outfitted with small incendiary devices could well be the key to winning the war!
Adam’s January 1942 letter, outlining his plan, somehow made its way to President Roosevelt. After considerable research, it was determined that the best candidate for the job (there are some thousand species) was the Mexican freetail, conveniently in huge supply in the American Southwest. Organic chemist Dr. Louis Fieser, twice-considered for the Nobel Prize, and the inventor of napalm, was brought on board to develop a ‘bomb’ that a one-third-of-an-ounce flying mammal could carry.
For a dry run, held in California’s Mohave desert, 3,500 bats were outfitted with miniature napalm cases and placed in refrigerators to force them into hibernation; they needed to be docile for transport before being dropped from a B-25 bomber at 5,000 feet. Alas, many of the critters failed to wake up in the allotted time, and sleeping bats can’t fly.
Remarkably, a second test ensued, on a warm summer day on an operational Army Air Force field near bat-central Carlsbad. This time, the miniature bombs were fitted with timed ignitions. The bad news was that the weather (if not the proximity to ‘home’) had them waking prior to being loaded on the aircraft. The good news was that, despite dozens of escapees, a few flew straight into the ‘Japanese’ test village, burning it down. The other bad news was that others flew into barracks, offices, hangars and control towers; given the project’s secrecy, no firefighters were on hand.
The airfield burnt down. The Army opted out. In December 1945, the U.S. Navy – already experimenting with underwater explosives in the hope of creating an artificial tsunami (aka Project Seal) for use against Japan – stepped in, initiating its own tests, with increasingly powerful incendiaries.
But when the Chief of Naval Operations, Fleet Admiral Ernest King, learned that the bat project wouldn’t be fully operational until mid-1945, at the earliest, and having been briefed on the progress of ‘Fat Man’ and ‘Little Boy’ (the aforementioned atomic bombs), he shut down Project X-ray. But not before the U.S. government had invested the present-day equivalent of some $30 million.
The Germans, too, had their wartime flights (no pun intended) of fancy. The Sun Gun was to be a concave, one-to-three-miles-square mirror designed to orbit the earth, redirecting and amplifying sunlight. Targeted at specific points, it could, depending on one’s needs, set an ocean boiling, blast a city into smithereens, destroy crops or vaporise water supplies. Granted, the concept was far in advance of the required technology, but given that the Reich was expected to last 1,000 years, the Nazis were optimistic.
Mincemeat was a British Intelligence subterfuge that involved planting a dead body off the coast of Spain, complete with documents that implied the Allies were going to land on Crete in 1943, instead of Sicily, their true destination. Having also been supplied with keys, photographs, a nightclub invitation, theatre-ticket stubs and a tailor’s bill, as well as letters from a father, a fiancée, a bank and a solicitor, the corpse was duly identified by local authorities as one Major William Martin of the Royal Marines and interred with full military honours.
MI6 counted on the strong pro-Axis sympathies of Franco’s Spain to ensure that the documents found their way into German hands, and on German efficiency to do the rest.
The macabre plan, considered one of WWII’s greatest coups, saved the lives of thousands of soldiers who participated in the Sicily landing. (Major William Martin never existed. Speculation as to the body’s actual identity continues to this day.)
Still, sometimes the simplest methods proved the most fruitful. Many captured, high-ranking German officers were billeted in a trio of stately British mansions where – lulled into a false sense of security by respectful treatment, good food, access to newspapers and radios, even day trips to London – they matter-of-factly shared details amongst themselves of top secret Gestapo war crimes, advanced military technology, atrocities done for sport, and more. It was the largest surveillance operation M16 had ever attempted. Special microphones – hidden in fireplaces, behind mirrors and chandeliers, on the grounds in tree branches – picked up even whispered conversations, which were transcribed (or recorded on vinyl discs) in mansion basement and attic ‘listening rooms’.
The operation, so secret that even Churchill was initially unaware of it, was hugely successful. So much so that its revelations were kept out of the Nuremberg Trials, and none of the ensconced officers were prosecuted for anything they’d said, in order to protect M16’s ‘Trent Park espionage method’ for future use.
In an unrelated episode, M16 foiled a Nazi plot to assassinate Winston Churchill by means of ‘candy bombs’. explosive chocolate slabs destined for the War Cabinet’s dining room.
It wasn’t until the so-called Cold War that espionage technology reached its Golden Age, jump-started by the unprecedented threat of nuclear annihilation.
“Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!” warns the scientist at the end of The Thing (1951), the first of that decade’s great sci-fi movies. “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought,” Albert Einstein observed, “but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
Two years after ‘Fat Man’ and ‘Little Boy’ had proved their worth, the newly established CIA began aggressively exploring strategies to counteract the Communist menace without obliterating the planet and its inhabitants in the process.
For a start, invisible inks were given a much-belated upgrade. Nobel Prize winners and MIT professors stepped up to the plate, experimenting with ink-based pneumonia bacteria and radioactive isotopes. Carrier pigeons were still being pulled into service, but now their strap-on cameras could shoot at intervals, thanks to tiny battery-operated motors that advanced the film and cocked the shutters.
Then there was poisoning, a time-tested political weapon. During WWII, Stanley Lovell, head of the OSS Research and Development Branch, had pursued the idea of making Adolf Hitler’s moustache fall out, and his voice change pitch, by spiking his vegetables (he was a vegetarian) with female sex hormones. (FDR was opposed to germ warfare; many U.S. military leaders felt that anything other than bombs and bullets verged on the immoral.) When Fidel Castro came to power, the CIA cooked up schemes to poison him by dusting the inside of his diving wetsuit with a skin-debilitating fungus, placing tuberculosis bacteria in the breathing tube, dusting his boots with a strong depilatory (to make his beard fall out), lacing his cigars with a ‘disorientation’ chemical, spraying LSD into the air of a radio station where he was scheduled to give a speech, delivering a poisoned Papermate gift pen, and more…
The weaponisation of animals (foxes, bats) continued with Operation Acoustic Kitty.
The plan was to convert house cats into Cold War eavesdropping devices that could infiltrate everything from Soviet embassies to the Kremlin. (Dogs and monkeys were thought too conspicuous for the task; squirrels would be shooed away.)
Implant a 3/4” audio transmitter at the base of the skull, a microphone in the ear canal, a battery in the chest cavity, then weave an antenna into the fur along the spine, and voila! Robo-Spy-Cat. As for felines being easily distracted, especially when hungry, that could be dealt with by a CIA programme known as MKULTURA, which specialised in ‘mind control’ and electronic brain stimulation.
After an unspecified training period, Acoustic Kitty received its first mission, to listen in on two men seated on a park bench outside Washington D.C.’s Soviet compound. A spy van, lined with monitors providing visuals from all angles, was parked across the street to receive the broadcasts. Set down on the asphalt, the cat made a beeline for the park bench, but – according to one version of the story – a few feet from the curb, it was run over by a taxi. Though deemed “a remarkable scientific achievement” – to the tune of some $25 million in invested resources and salaries – the project was shut down in 1967. In another version, the cat in question was surgically relieved of its devices, sewn back up, and lived into old age.
The Soviets, too, were embarked on a ‘surgical’ arms race involving animals. “If Russians could prove superiority in science and technology, they could control the temperature of the Cold War”, writes science historian Dr. Brandy Schillace. “If my science wins, went the argument, then that means my ideology’s won, too – and both sides believed only one system could prevail.”
In 1958, Soviet scientists spliced together a two-headed mastiff they named Cerberus, after the three-headed guardian of Hades; grainy black-and-white footage of the experiment, and the resulting short-lived creature lapping at a bowl of milk, was broadcast internationally. The point? According to Schillace, it was part of a competition, every bit as determined as the space race, to ‘overcome’ mortality.
MKULTURA was also busy commissioning scientists to concoct truth serums (to aid the interrogation of prisoners-of-war) and conducting research into little understood drugs like marijuana and LSD.
Enter Operation Midnight Climax.
At the same time that rock and roll (exemplified by Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips) was being chastised from America’s pulpits for destroying the nation’s morals, a government-sponsored ‘undercover’ brothel was set up in San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill neighbourhood. Concerned that foreign intelligence agencies were making advances in “brain warfare”, the CIA’s MKULTURA division deemed this an expedient way to test the merits of mind-altering substances, with help from an unsuspecting public.
Toulouse-Lautrec prints and S&M imagery shared the space with two-way mirrors. (Like Operation Fantasia, with its radioactive foxes, you can’t make this stuff up.)
Prostitutes, paid with agency funds, were instructed to pick up ‘clients’ in local bars – preferably working class or ‘financially disadvantaged’ men, under the assumption they’d be less likely to attract attention or cause problems. Taken back to ‘the brothel’, the men were dosed with drugs (injected through wine bottle corks, coated on swizzle sticks) and observed. The San Francisco ‘safe house’ was considered such a success that a second one was opened in suburban Marin County, just over the Golden Gate Bridge.
The CIA also hired a professional magician.
In the spring of 1953, an urbane prestidigitator popular with NYC high society was paid $3000 (approximately $29,267 today) to write a pair of illustrated manuals on the art of deception.
“Counterintelligence officers—people who specialize in catching spies—work in a part of the profession so labyrinthine” former CIA Director John E. McLaughlin would explain years later, “that it is often referred to as a ‘wilderness of mirrors’—a phrase, of course, with magical overtones.”
The text focused on the handling of tablets, powders and liquids (for clandestine delivery into adversaries’ drinks), the surreptitious removal of objects and on working as a team. Two of the eight chapters specified methods for use by women (presumably other than Midnight Climax’s call girls) – not a reflection on capability, the author hastened to stress, but on differing social customs between the sexes.
“Practically every popularly held notion on how to deceive, as well as to safeguard oneself from being deceived, is wrong in fact, as well as premise”, John Mulholland’s manual began. “Parenthetically, the writer is assured that the reader is a person of unquestionable integrity, possessing more than average intelligence and schooling. In other words, this is a person to whom the practice of deception is quite foreign. However, the reader’s admirable attributes … do not make his present task easier, for it takes practice to tell a convincing lie. Even more practice is needed to act a lie skillfully than is required to tell one.”
Twenty years later, in 1973, CIA Director Richard Helm ordered all copies of the already declassified manuals destroyed. Though rumours circulated about this odd bit of history, it wasn’t until 2007 that a photocopy of the entire text was discovered.
At the same time that the CIA was wiring up house cats, running clandestine brothels, commissioning ‘trickery and deception’ manuals – and developing an exploding pancake mix – two Brits were busy ‘translating’ the Cold War zeitgeist into literary adventures that transcended genre fiction and would have massive influence on popular culture worldwide.
And that would lead – slowly, circuitously, inexorably – to that $32,000 mustard-yellow purse.
Both Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, and John Le Carre, creator of George Smiley, had had firsthand WWII espionage experience – Fleming (who participated in Operation Mincemeat) as a naval intelligence analyst and Le Carre as an employee of both M15 and M16.
Long before the first Bond novel appeared, in 1953, the ‘romance’ of espionage was being promoted in everything from films (Notorious, Saboteur, Ministry of Fear, 39 Steps) to song.
I’m so cocky, I could swagger,
The things I know would make you stagger
went a popular 1944 ditty.
I’m ten percent cloak and ninety percent dagger,
Boo, boo, baby, I’m a spy!
Over the course of fourteen novels, Fleming pushed that romance to new heights, saving much of the free world from nefarious post-war plots in the process, many of them masterminded by agents of SMERSH — a fictionalised version of the Soviet Union’s NKVD. His James Bond (the name was borrowed from an American ornithologist) was quick to achieve a worldwide cult following thanks, in large part, to the attentions of Hollywood. Fleming’s tales are escapist fare, with a protagonist who – tuxedo-clad, witty in the face of imminent death and picky about his martinis – is catnip to women.
Now, as a lad, I’m not so bad,
In fact, I’m a darn good lover.
But look, my sweet, let’s be discreet,
And do this undercover.
Infuriated that Russians were bested, at every turn, by Fleming’s swashbuckling hero (the Bond novels were required reading for Soviet agents), the KGB went so far as to commission Julian Semyonov, author of spy novels and thrillers, to create a counter-Bond agent whose adventures eventually led to a Soviet TV spy show.
Le Carre’s George Smiley was Bond’s foil – short, rumpled, bespectacled, overweight, balding, self-effacing, ostensibly ‘ordinary’, with a serially unfaithful wife. His world is seedy, grey, rife with moral boobytraps and what Lewis Lapham called the Cold War’s “repugnant psychopathology”. Bond, the opposite of ordinary, moves through a world of colour and glamour. Why settle for existential angst and dark nights of the soul when you can have bikini-clad cohorts and spectacular cars?
In short, Bond has fun, and fun lends itself to gadgetry. The Bond films, in particular, are full of clever boy toys – many of which blow up, and some which were in actual use in the 1950s and 60s.
Wristwatches were a favourite.
Decades before Apple created watches that could monitor heart rates, track calories or connect to emails, Bond sported wrist jewellery that did double and triple duty as Geiger counters and ticker tape readouts (coded with instructions from headquarters), that housed a circular saw (for cutting through ropes and such) and an electromagnet (for deflecting bullets), a bomb detector complete with tiny grappling hook (for timely escapes) and see-in-dark night light, a dart gun (five darts could pierce armour, five others were coated with cyanide), a two-way TV radio with liquid crystal screen (handy for ogling females), a laser (powerful enough to slice through a train) and a handy garrotte.
James’ wristwatches could even infiltrate and shut down evil computer systems across the globe, set up bombs in Siberia or hijack a rocket, sending it into outer space.
Did Smiley even own a wristwatch?
Then there were Bond’s cameras, doing double duty as rocket homing devices, x-ray machines and stun guns. Ballpoint pens housed metal-cutting acid, radio receivers and poison gas. (In 1948, the CIA issued tear gas pens to its agents.)
Before long, both British and America television were home to a panoply of spy fare – I Spy; The Wild, Wild West; Mission: Impossible; The Avengers (very ‘swinging 60s’, with Emma Peel sporting instantly iconic black leather pants); Secret Agent; The Saint – not to mention big-screen satires like Our Man Flint; Operation Goldsinger (an Italian-made take on Goldfinger); The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World; Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, and more. Woody Allen dubbed a foreign spy flick with comic dialogue (What’s Up, Tiger Lily?); the French released the multi-award-winning The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe.
Some featured gadgets had been in actual use in the 1950s and 60s; many others were dreamt up. The Man from U.N.C.L.E., arguably the most popular TV spy series of all time (Ian Fleming was brought in to work on it), was nominated for a 1966 Emmy Award for “unusual props”, the first-ever recognition of its kind. “Half the things we made…were from silver tape, balsa wood, cigar holders and lipstick tubes”, recalled prop master Arnold Goode, and created on the fly “because the rewrites came so fast.”
All the more impressive then, that MGM Studios received a letter from a U.S. Army brigadier requesting U.N.C.L.E. prop blueprints and working models, so their potential could be tested “in the interest of national security.”
The viewing public couldn’t get enough. Spy parodies were written into nearly every 1960s American TV series, from The Dick Van Dyke Show to The Beverly Hillbillies. Merchandisers rallied with 007 wallpaper, beach towels and action figures. In the 1999s, Spy Kids lowered the age limit on fictional operatives. Alias, with its complex characters, great plot twists and nuanced humour, debuted in 2001.
That same year, Hollywood released The Tailor of Panama, starring four-time Bond veteran Pierce Brosnan. Tailor was an homage to the satiric 1959 film Our Man in Havana, about a salesman recruited to spy for the British in pre-revolutionary Cuba who designs a bogus rocket-launching pad made of vacuum cleaner parts. (Fidel Castro, who’d just come to power, visited the Havana set.) Fans of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. recognized another homage: U.N.C.L.E. headquarters was accessed by turning a coat hook on the wall of Del Floria’s Tailor Shop.
Johnny English, another British spoof, was a 2003 box office smash. Ten years later, an American TV series about deep-cover Soviet spies — an ‘ordinary’ suburban couple with two kids — hit the airwaves, the start of a widely acclaimed eight-year run that extended into Canada and the U.K. Set in the 1980s, The Americans was an espionage/counter-espionage feast rife with gadgets, some of which were ‘the real thing’, used the same way they had been during the era the series depicted.
Created and produced by a former CIA officer, The Americans’ storylines (many based on recently unearthed CIA, KGB and Stasi archives) were far more realistic than, say, those of the hugely popular Jason Bourne films (2002-2016), which grossed $1.6 billion.
“Both of us, I am sure,” Smiley tells his arch enemy, Karla, in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, “have experienced, ad nauseum, the technical satisfactions of this wretched war.”
Prior to computer ubiquity, espionage inspired an enormous amount of creative (if sometimes wacky) thinking, arguably even more so than today. The results of that thinking, the devices and techniques, are imbued, for many, with an abiding nostalgia.
In February 2021, London-based Julien’s Auctions offered a Cold War Relics sale featuring “the world’s first and most comprehensive” offering of “rare and important” KGB-specific spy equipment and artefacts ever assembled for sale. It was a stretch for an auction house that specialises in such high-end celebrity memorabilia as Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ gown, Michael Jackson’s rhinestone-encrusted glove, a preserved slice of Princess Diana’s wedding cake, Bill Clinton’s signed saxophone and Michael Jordan’s jersey. The hope was that recent talk about Russian interference in the Trump-Biden presidential election might spur things on.
The response was beyond anything Julien’s had anticipated.
The spectacular entrance of James Bond (actor Daniel Craig) and Queen Elizabeth (part actual monarch, part stunt double) during the 2012 Olympics’ opening ceremony – via helicopter and parachute, theme music blaring – didn’t hurt.
Cameras were much in evidence, at least half of which sported names beginning with ‘Z’: Zodchi, Zaryad, Zinnia (with vertical lens), Zola, Zasada, Zhiljo, Zenid, Zurnalist. A KGB “spy ring” with concealed miniature camera (no guarantee that it works or that film is available for it) sold for $15,625, nearly double its estimate. A John Player Special cigarette pack with concealed camera pulled in a winning bid of $19,200, thirty-two times its original estimate; a similarly jury-rigged Marlboro pack went for a mere $11,520. (In the 1950s, the KGB also issued one-shot ‘cigarette case’ guns with cyanide-tipped bullets for good measure. Such discoveries accelerated US efforts to create comparable weaponry.)
Other clandestine models were mounted behind belt buckles, cloth caps, ties, hairbrush handles, book spines and picture frames. (“You can buy a camera that looks like a camera”, quipped Jake, the handsome young auctioneer. “But why?”) The KGB is credited with developing the first coat button cameras; several sets were up for bids. (“There’s no such thing as spy zippers. If there are, you don’t want to know about them.”)
A Soviet ‘suicide tooth’ (replica), designed as a failsafe for captured agents wishing to avoid torture or compromise (careful how you chew), went for $7,680. (Not to be outdone, the CIA outfitted some of its agents with cyanide-embedded eyeglasses.)
Hollowed-out shoe heels have been a ‘thing’ since at least 1901, when Harry Houdini used them to facilitate some of his famous escapes. During the 1940s, British Special Operations issued a heel knife to its agents and managed to conceal a saw, capable of cutting through a one-inch steel bar, within a shoelace. (In the hugely successful Get Smart TV parody, a ‘shoe phone’ was a fixture, complete with rotary dial.) A pair of stylish men’s shoes, size unknown, with woven leather vamps and secret heel ‘wells’ (for transmitters? Microphones? Film cassettes?) fetched a modest $3,840.
One of the afternoon’s greatest surprises was a single Soviet ‘hollow coin’. (Steven Spielberg’s 2015 Bridge of Spies, based on the true story of Russian operative Rudolf Abel, features an ‘American’ nickel for housing microfilm and a ‘trick’ half-dollar for when suicide seems the best option.) The faux coin sold for a whopping $25,600, 128 times its auction estimate.
Concealed automatic weapons comprised a small but intriguing subdivision.
The ‘Kiss of Death’ Lipstick Gun, circa 1965, holds particular fascination for many spy aficionados. A single-shot, 4.5 mm device Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler might have dreamt up, it was first discovered by Western authorities during a random search at a border crossing between East and West Berlin. (In You Only Live Twice (1967), SPECTRE henchwoman Helga Brant used a lipstick case to discharge disorienting gas. Her attempts to dispatch James Bond having failed, her evil boss drops her into a tank of hungry piranhas.)
Alas, the ‘Kiss of Death’ lipstick was ‘pulled’ from the auction itinerary (despite having been the focus of considerable pre-auction advertising), along with a KGB Pen Gun, for legal reasons. Too bad. Given its femme fatale-Film Noir aura, the lipstick might have bested the $25K hollow coin.
Equally insidious was auction item #394, a reproduction of “what may or may not have been” the umbrella used to jab Bulgarian dissident and opposition activist Georgi Markov. In September 1978, while waiting for a bus on Waterloo Bridge, Markov felt a sharp prick in his leg. Within days, he was dead. A 1.7mm-wide pellet containing the poison ricin was found under his skin. The pellet was coated in a special wax designed to melt at body temperature, releasing its contents into the bloodstream.
The umbrella holds pride of place as the most infamous Cold war weapon. The shooter, believed to have been from the secret services in Bulgaria, which was then in Soviet Russia’s orbit, was never caught. The reproduction umbrella, which contained a spring-loaded syringe with a needle tip, sold in February for $19,200.
A rustic, homemade-looking birdhouse, somewhat the worse for wear, with hidden digital video camera, elicited the most memorable remark of the afternoon as auctioneer Jake worked to encourage a bidding frenzy. “We’re all shadows and dust”, he said. “Value is what you determine it to be.” Closing offer: $6,250.
KGB ‘bugs’ were embedded in wallets, pens, wristwatches, the back of porcelain dinner plates, ashtrays, even inside a reproduction wooden plaque featuring the Great American Seal, a 1945 gift to the American Ambassador from Russia’s Boy Scouts. (The Americans discovered the ‘bug’ but kept it secret for years.) The plaque fetched $19,200.
A set of three, three-inch long KBG rectal concealment capsules (not among the devices featured in TV spy series or Hollywood films) went for $6,400.
(The CIA issued rectal ‘tool kits’ to its operatives in the 1960s – tightly sealed, pill-shaped containers filled with drill bits, saws and knives. It was, noted historian Vince Houghton, “a great example of problem solving in the intelligence world”, requiring materials that would not splinter or create sharp edges, and that sealed tightly to not let anything seep in or poke out.)
Also on offer were bottles of Soviet marking dye (for spraying suspects), rubber “compliance” batons, a “psychiatric sedation chair” (for interrogation and torture), several vintage gas masks, handcuffs, an array of Soviet prison cell doors (cell #390 pulled in $5,760), a machine to pick up heartbeats (for detecting stowaways and other escapees), ultraviolet and infra-red kits (for revealing forgeries and salvaging charred texts), a disguise kit (hair pieces, makeup, eyeglasses), KGB office telephones marked “Attention: Maintaining secret negotiations is forbidden” and, last but not least, a “demonstration” skull sporting a hole at the back, for depicting how Leon Trotsky was bludgeoned to death while exiled in Mexico (ice axe included).
Julien’s anticipated that the prize of the afternoon would be the Fialka, a rare Soviet version of Germany’s Enigma code cipher machine. It sold for a respectable $22,400. (The Bond film To Russia with Love (1963) features a “Lektor message decoder” the size of a typewriter, inspired by the German original.)
But in fact, the ultimate star was that frumpy, mustard-coloured handbag mentioned at the start. It featured a sound-concealing lining and hidden FED model camera that shot through a decorative aperture in the shape of a fly. The winning bid was a whopping $32,000, nearly thirteen times more than anticipated. Had ‘The Fly’ come with documentation about its previous owners, or the assignments it had facilitated, the bids would likely have gone considerably higher.
“By now, it goes without saying,” observed Lewis Latham back in 2016, “that our lives, liberties and pursuits of happiness are closely monitored by a paranoid surveillance apparatus possessed of the fond hopes and great expectations embedded in the fifteenth-century Spanish Inquisition.”
Five years later, that apparatus is even more ubiquitous. Surveillance cameras monitor everything from street corners, sports areas and airports to locker rooms and gynaecologist offices.
With so many working remotely these days, employers can now install software that tallies every keystroke and website visited, quantifies every bit of downtime, and even monitors employees visually.
Faces are the new fingerprints. Crowds at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were scanned with software hidden in police sunglasses. Designed to capture 400 facial images per second at distances of up to 50 meters (164 feet), the software transmitted them to a central computer database with a storage capacity of 13 million (faces, not pixels).
More recently, robotic-looking dragonflies and other insects have been spotted hovering over political events and protest rallies in Washington and New York. In 2020, Harper’s Magazine estimated that, by 2030, governments worldwide will purchase 75,000 drones for surveillance, versus a mere 1,800 for combat use. Amazon, meanwhile, is hoping to initiate drone delivery service, and is busy calculating what other ‘useful’ customer marketing insights those drones can obtain in the process of hovering overhead.
“At the height of its deranged imperium, the STASI had files on 5.6 million DDR citizens,” notes British design critic Stephen Bayley, a tally that required a workforce of 90,000 spies. Facebook, which knows where we go online and the aisles we frequent in the market, “has 2.6 billion users [and] employs half that number.” Google can read your emails and follow you with its Maps app. Uber knows where you’ve been and when.
”It’s one thing to know we are being photographed, “ observed photo-centric Vogue magazine, “and another to know that we are connected instantly to a digital depository that anyone, trustworthy or untrustworthy, governmental or commercial, might be keeping on our habits and our lives…”
In the good old days, only criminals were profiled. “To today’s tech,” Vogue added, “our lives, if not our minds, have become open books.”
Then, too, average citizens can keep tabs of their own.
In 2006, coinciding with the release of Casino Royale, Sony offered two limited edition Spy Gear sets retailing at $3,200 each. In 2021, an astonishing range of sophisticated spy gear is available anywhere from your local spyware shop (often conveniently located in high-traffic tourist areas like San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf) to eBay.
Want to tap your girlfriend’s phone? Monitor your neighbour’s comings and goings? Consider a Spy Kite, complete with digital camera and 82 feet of string. The Uzi tactical pen has a built-in ‘DNA Catcher’ that not only injures attackers but takes a sample of their blood (and doubles as a glass breaker). An Invisible Secret Spy Nano Wireless Earphone Earpiece for your mobile phone costs a mere $17.58, with free shipping.
Interested in the world’s smallest microphone recorder? Suspect your girlfriend or ex-husband is spying on you? Consider a portable, broadband, counter-intelligence detector kit with high and low-frequency antennas, a phone line unit, headphones and infrared/carrier current probe.
And for businessmen with a sartorial bent, bespoke bullet-proof suits are available. One provider claims their fabric incorporates “the same carbon nanotubes designed for U.S. troop uniforms in Iraq”, but thinner and more flexible. “The entire custom suit acts like a shield … hardening to block force from penetrating through.”
The world of 2021 has come to resemble Orwell’s 1984 more than Le Carre’s 1954. Some might even argue that James Bond and George Smiley have been replaced by the likes of Edward Snowden and Julien Assange.
I’m involved in a dangerous game,
Every other day I change my name,
The face is different, but the body’s the same,
Boo boo baby, I’m a spy.
Ironically, with the advent of increasingly sophisticated airborne, satellite and digital technology, some espionage professionals are looking back to more traditional, less traceable methods, otherwise known as ‘going medieval’ – as in completely off-line. (One of this writer’s favourite KGB auction items was a pair of crudely hewn wooden animal hooves. One horse, one hog. Straps allow them to be slipped over a shoe, so that no human footprints would be left at clandestine border crossings. A steal at $3,840.)
“Even invisible ink is making a comeback”, notes British reporter Gordon Corera, author of Cyberspies: The Secret History of Surveillance, Hacking and Digital Espionage (2017).
“It’s easier and quicker to go through someone’s desk”, agrees former CIA officer Jason Hanson, than to tap into computer databases.
 Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, died the same year Dr. Strangelove (1964), a farce about the perils of nuclear war that ends in an “inadvertent” Armageddon, was released.
 See The Manchurian Candidate, a film that was withdrawn from distribution when, life imitating art, President Kennedy was assassinated.
 The U.S. Public Health Service, meanwhile, was busy injecting unsuspecting African Americans with syphilis; the “Tuskegee Study” wasn’t shut down until 1972.
 Forty-two years later, in 2020, an attempt was made by the FSB (the KGB’s successor) to poison Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny by applying a nerve agent to his underwear.
About the Author
B. Alexandra Szerlip is the author of The Man Who Designed the Future: Norman Bel Geddes & the Invention of 20th Century America (Melville House, NY/London), voted “One of the Top Ten Art Books of 2017” by the American Library Association. She’s at work on a history of San Francisco’s historic Sentinel Building.
All artwork by Whiskey Radish. the adventures of char vol. #1 is now available to pre-order from Ice Floe Press.