Monday, April 5, 2010

My top 10 spy gadgets

Here's an article I wrote for The Times in May 2009, on real-life spy gadgets. You can read the article at The Times' website, where they've added links to related articles from their archives, or you can read it here, where I've added some photos.

With the news that MI5 is looking for a Chief Scientific Adviser, spy novelist Jeremy Duns reveals ten real-life espionage inventions

1. Poison-tipped umbrella

Probably the most infamous real-life spy gadget is the umbrella used by the Bulgarian secret services – with KGB help – to kill the dissident writer and broadcaster Georgi Markov. KGB technicians converted the tip of the umbrella into a silenced gun that could fire a pellet containing a lethal dose of ricin. On September 7, 1978, Markov felt himself being jabbed in the thigh as he walked across Waterloo Bridge. A man behind him apologised and stepped into a taxi. Markov died four days later. No arrests have ever been made.

2. Dart gun

It wasn’t just Soviet bloc spies who used such techniques, though. In a 1975 US Senate hearing, CIA Director William Colby handed the committee’s chairman a gun developed by his researchers. Equipped with a telescopic sight, it could accurately fire a tiny dart – tipped with shellfish toxin or cobra venom – up to 250 feet. Colby claimed that this and other weapons had never been used, but couldn’t entirely rule out the possibility.

3. Compass buttons

During the war, the Special Operations Executive – ‘Churchill’s secret army’ – created a wealth of Q-like devices. One ingenious invention was magnetized trouser buttons, which were to be used if for agent who were totally lost. By cutting off the buttons and balancing them on each other, they turned into compasses.

4. Exploding briefcase

Another SOE invention was a briefcase designed to hold sensitive documents, but which would act as a booby trap for any enemy agent. If the right-hand lock was held down and simultaneously pushed to the right, the case would open safely; otherwise, the left-hand lock would ignite.

5. Exploding rat

If an exploding briefcase weren’t enough, the SOE boffins created something even more outlandish to battle the Nazis – an exploding rat. Developed in 1941, the device used the skin of a real rat, with a fuse concealed inside. The idea was to use them to blow up German boilers, but they were quickly discovered and so never put into production.

6. Cigarette-case gun

In 1954, Soviet agent Nikolai Khokhlov was sent to Frankfurt to assassinate an anti-Communist leader. But Khokhlov had a last-minute attack of nerves, and instead defected to the Americans. The Americans wasted no time in showing the world press the would-be assassin’s equipment, which included a gold cigarette case that concealed an electrically operated gun capable of firing cyanide-tipped bullets. In Ian Fleming’s novel From Russia, With Love, fearsome assassin Red Grant tells his masters at SMERSH that they gave the job to the wrong man: “I wouldn’t have gone over to the Yanks.”

7. Hollowed-out lighter

In 1960, MI5 broke up a ring of KGB spies, at the centre of which were two Americans, Morris and Lona Cohen. The Cohens lived in a bungalow in Ruislip under cover as antiquarian booksellers Peter and Helen Kroger. But when MI5 searched the bungalow, they discovered an astonishing array of spy paraphernalia, including a cigarette lighter made by Ronson (the same brand as favoured by James Bond), inside of which were hidden several one-time cipher pads. These were printed on cellulose nitrate and impregnated with zinc oxide so they would be easy to burn, thus destroying the evidence. But the Cohens weren’t quick enough, and they served eight years in prison before being exchanged with Gerald Brooke in 1969.

8. Wallet document camera

Most intelligence agencies want to recruit people with access to top-secret material, but once they have been recruited they still have to photograph the documents you’re after. If the security is too tight to remove them from the premises, one way of doing this is to smuggle in a camera. During the Cold War, the KGB developed several disguised cameras, including one that looked just like a leather wallet – the edge of it was rolled against a document to expose the film. In the Sixties, signals intelligence technician Douglas Britten was blackmailed by the KGB into using one of these to photograph material at RAF Digby. But Britten was in turn photographed by MI5 at the Soviet Consulate in London, and when confronted pleaded guilty to treason.

9. Microphone in an olive

Also in the Sixties, American private detective Hal Lipset became famous when he demonstrated an unusual bugging device at a Senate subcommittee on surveillance (pictured below): a miniature microphone hidden inside a fake olive. Perfect for placement inside a vodka Martini, the toothpick acted as an antenna. The range was short – about thirty feet – but Lipset’s show convinced the Senate to toughen the laws on recording people without their consent.

10. Rock bug

These days, bugs can act as cameras, ‘reading’ digital documents and communicating in other ways. But however hi-tech espionage becomes, it seems nobody can resist an old-fashioned disguised gadget. In 2006, Russian television claimed it had footage of British embassy officials transmitting information via a receiver disguised as a rock in a Moscow street. The British government denied the claim.


  1. Excellent list! I'd seen a number of these in the Ultimate Spy book, but never an exploding rat! Maybe I just blocked that one out :0


  2. Glad you enjoyed it, Jason, and thanks very much for linking to it. I don't have that book, because from independent research I've done I don't trust the author much. (I'll do a post at some point about the difficulties of researching espionage, a subject built around deceit.)

    The information and photographs of the exploding rat and attache case are taken from the SOE's 'Descriptive Catalogue of Special Devices and Supplies' from 1944, which was published in book form in 2008 as Secret Agent's Handbook, in arrangement with Britain's National Archives. It's a fascinating document.

  3. The exploding rat was used in the movie Wanted. Although, the concept was based on a military tactics if I'm not mistaken during World War II.


  4. Hi. This is a wonderful article. Thank you for sharing all these ideas with us. very useful, indeed! :) keep up the good work!