6 Real World Spy Gadgets Straight Out of the Movies
The Cold War was a terrifying time fraught with tension, murder and the ever-present threat of nuclear war. And in our darkest hour, our world leaders turned to their most esteemed geniuses, their brilliant scientists, their brightest engineers, and asked them one question, one question upon which hung the fate of the world:
"Hey, wouldn't it be cool to have like, a shoe-phone? Like that Get Smart guy? From the show?"
And the answer they received was: "Hell yes."
Umbrella Dart Gun
Georgi Markov was a pair of freedom-loving bohemian testicles resting gently on the forehead of communist Bulgaria. His writing was winning all sorts of awards and stirring anti-communist movements all across Europe. Clearly, they had to get those balls off their face, and stat. So it was that one day, while Markov was walking to his car in London, he felt a sharp bite on his thigh. When he turned around he saw nothing, only a man who fumbled briefly with an umbrella before running off. The next day he became deathly ill, and died, as one is wont to do when becoming deathly ill. To this day no one has ever been tried for the murder.
"A man with an umbrella in London? That narrows it down to just half the city."
The suspected poison, ricin, was cutting edge at the time. It was a top-secret concoction yielded after decades of research in Soviet chemical warfare labs. Scotland Yard was so unfamiliar with this new super-poison that they had to test it on a hapless pig to confirm how it killed. The projectile itself was a modified 1.52 mm jeweler's bearing, normally only used in precision watchmaking. The bullet was relatively harmless to the body, no more damaging than a BB, but the pellet was coated with a special wax that would melt at body temperature, and inside was the new and deadly poison. In fact, the wax worked so covertly that it wasn't actually discovered until investigators found traces on a similar pellet pulled from the body of Bulgarian exile Vladimir Kostov, who suffered, but ultimately lived through the attack.
The Communists killed dissidents with tiny platinum Death Stars. And, somehow, they lost.
That's right: This wasn't an isolated incident. Multiple men have been attacked with a poison watch bearing fired by an umbrella, wielded by a certainly Bulgarian, possibly watch-themed super-assassin.
Batman writers, eat your hearts out. (Seriously, do it quick; it's a way nicer death than ricin poisoning, and the Watchman does not take kindly to copyright infringement.)
Running only amuses him.
In the Vietnam War, it was common for U.S. soldiers to litter the Vietnamese countryside with mounds of fake tiger shit. Why? To demoralize the enemy? To attract other tigers to their position? Just because it was funny?
Correction: It was hilarious.
Nope: Because they had seismometers tucked inside the turds to track enemy troop movements.
It makes sense. If there's one thing you don't want to check, it's a pile of shit, and if there's one animal whose shit you don't want to mess with in particular, it's probably a tiger. Everybody knows the worst poops are the ones comprised of your friends and loved ones.
Honestly, tiger poops are much tidier than we'd have expected.
It was an elegantly simple way to make sure nobody investigated the suspect devices. The flip side, however, came when they started using faux turds for dead drops. These simulated dog poops were hollowed out to hide messages and information in -- again, because nobody wants to go around checking every pile of crap in the jungle. However, unlike the seismometers, which operated autonomously, the dog poop dead drops needed somebody to eventually find them, open them and read their contents. The Vietnamese probably got a pretty good laugh at all the American spies hesitantly attempting to "unscrew" piles of crap time and time again until they found the right one.
"First order of business: Americans are seriously gross."
Budding mad scientist Hal Lipset specialized in inserting audio devices into seriously inappropriate places. Everything about him was straight out of a Golden Age comic: He specialized in secret, high-tech gadgetry, almost always concealed as something mundane, and even operated out of a covert laboratory hidden behind a false storefront.
Not pictured: A backyard full of buried secret agents.
When he needed to demonstrate to a Senate Constitutional Rights Subcommittee just how easy it was to whip up these little listening devices, he presented them with dozens of bugs that he custom-built for the testimony. Then he revealed his piece de resistance: He'd actually sneakily placed bugs into the committee's own microphones before the hearings and played the proceedings back to them. He was attempting to prove that wiretapping technology should be employed more by the private citizen, since the government was doing it so rampantly anyway. But the plan backfired, and the subcommittee was so outraged about being recorded that they started cracking down on private use. Later, Hal would return with a series of cuter, more approachable wiretaps, apparently hoping to take the Hello Kitty route to espionage. The belle of the privacy infringement ball was this little guy:
We have a sudden, powerful urge to watch Mad Men.
The Martini Olive Bug was so darling and appealing that, when Hal tried to move on to other, smaller, more effective technology, reporters and senators alike would steer him again and again back to the martini. His plan was working perfectly, and all the anger at his previous stunts was melting away. Truly, Hal was a technological genius light years ahead of hi-
What's that? It didn't work with alcohol in the glass, because it would cause a short?
This thing is bullshit.
If Sean Connery taught us anything, it's that "espionage" and "sobriety" don't belong in the same sentence.
If one of your soldiers is captured and placed in a POW camp, you want to make sure he's as well-prepared for escape as possible. After all, breaking out of prison is just the first step: He still has to find his way to safety deep inside hostile enemy territory, and for that, he's going to need a map and a compass.
What you're looking at above is the latter: A functional compass cleverly hidden inside a button, which flips open with the reversal of a screw. But as clever as that is, it still leaves something to find if you have diligent or OCD-suffering guards doing the patdowns.
Above: Something no one born in the smartphone era will know how to use.
A POW simply removes both buttons, balances one atop the other, and then the free-standing button swivels to point north. They also glowed in the dark, which uh ... seems like it takes a bit away from that whole covert "just an ordinary button" thing, no?
"Is your crotch glowing, or are you just happy to be a POW?"
U.S. Embassy Seal
Presented to the U.S. Ambassador by Soviet schoolchildren, this Great Seal of the United States hung proudly in the man's office in Spaso House from 1946 to 1952. Well, after a good bug scan, of course, which turned up nothing.
Nothing but a robotic beak that played a Russian translation of "Suspicious Minds" at the top of every hour.
The ambassador wasn't a fool: He knew the Soviets were desperately trying to bug everything they could get their hands on. Eavesdropping was so rampant, in fact, that the Americans eventually adopted a kind of fatalist attitude about it. When guests stayed at Spaso House, they were given cards that read:
"Every room is monitored by the KGB and all of the staff are employees of the KGB. We believe the garden also may be monitored. Your luggage may be searched two or three times a day. Nothing is ever stolen and they hardly disturb things."
"Sometimes we fill our suitcases with dildos, just to fuck with them."
Which, we admit, does make Russian espionage sound rather harmless and adorable, like a Soviet version of The Littles. But regardless, the seal came up clean. And so there it sat, on the ambassador's wall, right over the heads of the most important Americans operating in the Soviet Union, during their private meetings. When somebody finally thought to retest it, however, they pulled a tiny scrap of metal about the length and shape of a pencil tube out of there, which they initially thought nothing of, because it didn't have a single wire or battery running from it.
In fact, the device had no electronics at all: It was simply wood and metal designed in such a way that sound waves changed the dimensions of the interior space, which an ultra-high frequency signal could pick up on.
This guy seems awfully happy about the fact that the Russians just won six years of American secrets.
This Amish microphone could be turned on at whim from a remote location, but stayed an inert metal rod inside a piece of wood when not. It was an invention so cunning, simple and effective that only one man, the feared Soviet master of sound, could have invented it: Lev Termen.
When he eventually came West, he would change his name to Leon Theremin. That's right: The guy who invented that laser-sounding instrument heard in state fair haunted houses everywhere was actually an elite Soviet spymaster.
Leon Theremin, winner of the Most Unsettling Mustache Award from 1948 to 1953.
You knew this entry was coming. It's the most obvious spy gadget of them all: A gun that doesn't look like a gun. But while you've probably seen the odd shotgun cane or rifle umbrella (hopefully before it was too late), the sheer depth and breadth of tiny guns hidden in mundane objects might surprise you. This here is a 4.5mm single-shot pistol fired by pointing the lipstick end at your target and twisting it about a centimeter. You know, exactly what you would do to apply real lipstick. To your own mouth.
That's why it's important to label your hidden guns very carefully.
This pipegun was also fired by placing the barrel in your mouth. But surely, there was some sort of secret triggering method that wouldn't be set off by unsuspecting friends just jonesing for a sweet cherry vanilla fix, right? Nope: It was fired by holding a lighter or lit match to the trigger -- which was, of course, inside the barrel. How many pretentious collegiate arguments ended in needless accidental bloodshed because of it?
And here's a watch pistol fired by -- yep -- winding a watch:
If you ever need to assassinate a hipster, this article is just full of ideas.
It's like life during the Cold War was a nonstop slapstick parade of exploding cigars, only instead of leaving you with a charred mug and a dopey expression, like in the cartoons, you got shot in the goddamn face.
By far the most common type of hidden pistol, however, was the pen gun:
Used by KGB and CIA alike, the pen gun was practically a staple of early spy work. And it's still around, too. Many gangs in Britain have taken to using small pistols concealed in pens, and it's become such a problem that Scotland Yard has even started a little collection of their own pen guns, for use as a reference guide in training police to spot them. So that was what life was like for your grandparents: If you touched anything remotely cylindrical and tubelike to your mouth or hands, it stood a good chance of exploding and killing you.
And you wonder why they were so sexually repressed.
Now that you understand why Eric Axt will have to be killed, you can pay your respects by visiting the webcomic/slash blog he runs with his brother.
For toys you'll want for the holidays, check out 7 Items You Won't Believe Are Actually Legal and The 13 Most Irresponsible Self Defense Gadgets Money Can Buy.
And stop by LinkSTORM to see what happens when James Bond and Ethan Hunt play checkers.
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