When James Bond needed nifty espionage gadgets, like a Rolex-turned-circular-saw or a peel-off fake fingerprint, he could count on the Q branch of the British Secret Service. When American operatives need to snap photos on the down-low or transmit a secret code, they have the Central Intelligence Agency’s Office of Research and Development working the tech angles. The agency’s Langley museum, which isn’t open to the public (but which can be explored via a Flickr account), displays mostly quainter examples of Cold War-era spycraft—presumably because the supercool Bond-like gear is still in use. Below, some classic tools of the trade and a few also-rans.
This insect-sized flying machine—think dragonfly meets drone—was intended to provide proof of concept that micro UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) could collect intelligence. With a tiny gas-powered engine driving the movement of its wings, and excess fuel vented out its rear for extra thrust, the faux bug got the flying part down. But while it was a nifty feat of miniaturization, the vehicle proved uncontrollable in a crosswind. And it’s hard to imagine a camera light enough to keep it aloft.
Dead-drop spike (Cold War era)
As every spy-novel fan knows, sometimes it just isn’t safe for an undercover agent operating in hostile territory to meet face to face with his or her handler. The solution: passing intel via a “dead drop” at a prearranged location. This hollow spike, which could be pushed into the ground, could hold messages, documents or film.
Pigeon camera (Cold War era)
At a time when cameras were mostly clunky, weighty affairs, the CIA’s Office of Research and Development created one small enough and light enough to be strapped to the breast of a pigeon. Ubiquitous and nondescript, the urban birds made excellent carriers for spygear; and while the creatures probably weren’t happy with the extra bundle, they miraculously didn’t drop like a stone when taking flight. Trained to fly over any enemy target with their cameras running, they returned with photo images snapped at much closer range than planes or satellites. The cameras were programmed to take still images at intervals, while tiny, battery-powered motor advanced the film and cocked the shutter.
Modified make-up compact (Cold War era)
Ever wonder why all those femme-fatale agents in the movies made so many trips to the ladies’ room to powder their noses? Their compacts probably carried secret coded messages or information. In this example, the code was revealed by tilting the mirror at just the right angle.
Robot fish ‘Charlie’ (1999)
Call him Pond, James Pond. The CIA says Charlie the “catfish” was, like the Insectothopter, an experiment—this one to explore the possibilities of aquatic robot technology. Controlled by a wireless line-of-sight radio handset, the unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) sported a pressure hull and ballast system, communications gear in the body and a propulsion system in the tail. Its mission? To collect water samples undetected, likely near nuclear reactors and other sensitive aquatic sites.
Tessina camera concealed in cigarette pack (Cold War era)
Unlike most commercially available cameras, the Tessina’s small size and quiet operation made it easy to conceal. The miniature spring-wound 35-mm film camera fit readily into a modified cigarette pack, allowing intelligence officers to keep it on the down-low.
Cold War: Silver dollar hollow container
More than just pocket change, this ersatz Eisenhower silver dollar was actually a concealment device used to hide secret messages or small bits of film.
Body-worn surveillance clothing (Cold War era)
Smile Boris—you’re on brooch cam! To collect intelligence while mingling with hostiles, agents needed apparel and accessories that worked as hard as they did. In some instances, the agency provided togs with tiny cameras or microphones embedded in pins, chokers or buttons, so operatives could sip martinis and smoke while recording the action.
Seismic intruder detection devices (Cold War era)
If agents wanted to monitor whether someone was lurking around a sensitive location, these intrusion detectors were just the thing. Camouflaged as sticks and rocks, these nondescript devices were used to sense movement of people, animals or objects up to 300 meters away. They ran on tiny power cells and boasted built-in antennae and transmitters that relayed data via coded impulses.
Pipe with concealed radio receiver (Cold War era)
No smoking with this pipe. Its insides were fitted with a subminiature radio receiver, that allowed the user to hear the sound via bone conduction from the jaw to the ear canal.
To rescue six American diplomats who evaded capture during the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran in November 1979, CIA technical specialists created a fake movie-production company, Studio Six Productions, and delivered disguises and documents that facilitated the diplomats’ escape from Iran the following year. To lend credibility to the ruse, the bogus production company rented offices on the old Columbia Studio lot in Hollywood. A company logo was designed, and cards, stationery and other items were produced. The studio titled its new production “Argo” after the mythological Greek ship that Jason and the Argonauts sailed in rescuing the Golden Fleece from the many-headed dragon holding it captive—not unlike the situation in Iran.
Lockheed A-12 Project OXCART (1967)
Super-fast, high-flying—and hotter than hell for the pilots—OXCART was designed by the agency with Lockheed to gather intelligence while evading enemy air defenses. An engineering marvel of stealth technology, this record-breaking reconnaissance jet hit top speeds of more than 2,200 mph and flew (and took pictures) at altitudes of up to 90,000 feet. But getting it into use wasn’t easy, since the A-12 encountered numerous delays, technical challenges and political sensitivities. Although there was initial interest in operating OXCART over Cuba, its only reconnaissance operation flew 29 missions over East Asia between May 1967 to May 1968. Code-named BLACK SHIELD, the mission captured imagery that provided key intelligence to support U.S. military operations during the Vietnam War.
Written by Missy Sullivan | History