The Spy’s Toolkit
- 500 B.C.: Scytales
The Spartans and ancient Greeks used scytales — a cylinder wrapped in parchment containing a message — to communicate during military campaigns. To decipher the code, the recipient would place the parchment or other material over a similarly rod.
- 1466: Alberti Cipher
Thought to be one of the first polyphabetic ciphers invented, the Alberti Cipher was created by Italian architect and painter Leon Battista Alberti. In it, two disks with engraved letters were laid over one another, allowing messages to be easily written and decoded using the cipher.
- 1776: ‘Silver Bullets’
Approximately the same size as a musket ball, silver bullets were small, hollow objects used to conceal messages. Their diminutive stature allowed them to be easily concealed. They could also be swallowed, an improvement that was engineered after earlier lead-based capsules caused lead poisoning and death in spies who engulfed them.
- 1778: Sympathetic Stain
Developed by Dr. James Jay, the brother of the nations’s first Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Jay, Sympathetic stain was an invisible ink that required one chemical to pen a message and another to decipher it. Jay gave the ink to George Washington and to Silas Deane, a major revolutionary agent operating out of France. The ink was used to inscribe secret messages from London to the Americas.
- 1864: ‘Coal Torpedo’
Developed by the Confederate Secret Service, the ‘coal torpedo’ was a hollowed out iron casting filled with explosives that was painted to look like a piece of coal. It was intended to be planted inside the engine room of a locomotive — though no train attacks have been confirmed. The device is, however, believed to have brought down a number of ships, though documents confirming the attacks were burned during the last days of the war.
- 1916: Pigeon Camera
Throughout history, militaries have used pigeons for right about everything, from carrying messages to taking photographs. even stopping along the way to disguise British pigeons as German pigeons. During World War One, armies on both sides used pigeons outfitted with cameras to take reconnaissance photos. One such bird, the American army’s Cher Ami, received the french Army’s distinguished Croix de Guerre for carrying 12 important messages that helped save hundreds of allied lives.
- 1940s: Playing Card Map
For POWs during World War Two, the US and British intelligence agencies, in conjunction with the United States Playing Card company, concocted a playing card that had a secret map embedded into it. When soaked, the playing card would split to reveal the map.
- 1940s: Fake Monopoly Board Game
During World War Two, the board game maker John Waddington LTD, which owned the rights to produce Parker Brothers’ Monopoly in the UK, partnered with M19, a secret branch of the British Government during WW2 that helped POWs and organized resistance in Europe, to distribute fake board game sets. The classic game, outfitted for POWs contained maps files and compasses disguised as playing pieces, real gold and German currency. The special sets were distinguished from their authentic counterparts by a red dot on the ‘free parking” space. To smuggle them in, the British government set up fictitious charities, so to not risk besmirching the Red Cross.
- 1950s: M44 Cyanide Gas Gun
In 1957 and again in 1959, KGB agent Bogdan Stashinsky killed Ukrainian dissidents using a double-barreled hydrogen cyanide gun concealed in a newspaper.
- 1960s: Microdot Camera
Possibly the most important spy camera of all time, the Microdot Camera was able to photograph documents and then reproduce them into the size of a miniature dot, which could later be concealed inside a ring, letter pen or object and later read with a microscope .
- 1960s: Shoe Heel Transmitter
During the Cold War, foreign diplomats in Eastern Europe preferred to have their suits and dress attire shipped to them from the West. Capitalizing on this, Soviet agents intercepted the parcels and implanted one pair of dress shoes with transmitter and microphone in its heel.
- 1960s: Rectal Escape Kit
Yup, the object’s tittle conveys most of its function. This capsule — distributed by CIA — contained small picks, filled and other serrated and blunt edges that could help a spy escape from custody. It was, not so surprisingly, intended to be hidden in the agents rectum.
- 1965: Kiss Of Death Or Lipstick Pistol
reportedly carried by KGB agents, the Lipstick Pistol is a 4.5mm firearm hidden inside a lipstick tube.
- 1970: Model F-21 Buttonhouse Camera
The KGB developed this crafty (for that era) hidden camera. The lens was concealed in a buttonhole and the operator could take candid snaps by concealing the camera’s release in his/her pocket. The buttonhole camera was especially useful at public events.
- 1970s: Tree Stump Bug
Nowadays, solar power is ubiquitous. But in the 1970s, when American spies placed a bug inside a faux tree stump that ran energy, the practice wasn’t so common. The device intercepted communications from a Soviet air station before it was discovered by the Russians and destroyed
- 1970s: T11 – 51 Dog Doo Transmitter
You wouldn’t want to touch a piece of poop, which was the logic employed by the US Air Force’s when they created a radio transmitter and homing device that was disguised as dog feces. During the Vietnam War, the transmitter conveyed supply movements at night along the Ho Chi Minh trail.
- 1970s: Cyanide Glasses
In the 70s, the CIA developed glasses tipped with a cyanide pellet that American captives could chew through if they were subjected to extreme interrogation and torture, thus killing themselves but protecting their secrets
- 1978: Bulgarian Umbrella
Think it’s just a regular umbrella? Think again. In 1978, Bulgarian dissident Georgy Markov was killed in London when an unidentified person jabbed him in the leg with an umbrella tipped with ricin. Markov died four days later and the murder is still unsolved today, though popular speculation points towards the KGB and Bulgarian secret service
- Modern Day: Nightstand Hardware
In the modern era, cyber sleuthing maybe the new espionage. The National Security Agency’s Nightstand allows from as far away as 8 miles.
- Modern Day: Cottonmouth – 1
While the cottonmouth nay look like a basic USB cord, it’s purpose is much more nefarious; it acts as a wireless bridge to a target that can sneak in and exploit individual computers.