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
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
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.
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.
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