The Cold War was the first war fought over intelligence. The two newly minted superpowers following World War Two, the US and the USSR, struggled to understand how to address an enemy with the power to, for the first time, eradicate all life.
In such a scenario direct conflict was all but impossible. The 50 years of the Cold War instead saw a series of proxy wars with the superpowers supporting opposing sides but refraining from direct contact with each other.
Other more subtle methods were also used to weaken and disarm the enemy, and in this department the CIA boys at Langley were extraordinarily creative. They needed to know what the enemy was doing, when they would do it, and if possible they needed to stop it.
With covert intelligence, the unexpected is a powerful ally. If you have thought of something your opponent has not, then they will be unprepared for your infiltration. And so, armed with this knowledge, the CIA set to work creating the most outlandish devices imaginable in the service of gaining an edge over the Soviets.
Here are eight of the most creative spy tools of the era.
1. The Microdot Camera
This is hardly exciting in our modern world where everyone routinely carries a camera phone with them, but the ability to covertly photograph Soviet files was a powerful tool for western intelligence. The microdot camera removed the need to smuggle bulky papers through Soviet checkpoints, instead allowing for easy concealment of Soviet secrets in a tiny dot, no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence, which could then be read by a special lens. (CIA / Public Domain)
2. Body-Worn Surveillance Equipment
The microdot camera might be suitable for copying files, but what if you want to photograph Soviet buildings, or bases, or weapons? The CIA had you covered here as well, with a wide variety of hidden cameras worn on your person. Such cameras could be disguised as a brooch or ring, in a necklace or hat, or hidden in a handbag or packet of cigarettes (CIA / Public Domain)
The Pigeon Camera
By now, the Soviets were probably wondering how the west kept finding out all their secrets, and in the grip of Cold War paranoia many Soviet projects and sites would be completely inaccessible to visitors. What you needed in this instance was a pigeon with a miniature (for the time) camera strapped to it. The pigeon would discreetly fly over the secret base and then return home, as homing pigeons are know to do, carrying a treasure trove of photographic intelligence (CIA / Public Domain)
4. The Insectothopter
I know what you’re thinking: pigeons are quite noticeable and it only takes one bored conscript to shoot one of the espionage ones out of the sky and the game would be up. How about something truly small, such as the Insectothopter developed in the 1970s? This was effectively the first Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, decades ahead of its time and near-undetectable due to its close resemblance to the real thing (CIA / Public Domain)
5. Charlie the Robot Fish
Are those pesky enemies of democracy and capitalism hiding under the water again? Well, you need Charlie the Robot Fish, a remote controlled spying device developed by the CIA to test the possibilities of UUV (Unmanned Underwater Vehicles). Disguised as a catfish and with a pressurized interior, it was only really useful in fresh water given the need for its operator to maintain line of sight (CIA / Public Domain)
6. The Audiodrill
Need something a little more permanent? Well, send in an agent in disguise with the CIA’s latest “Belly Buster” audio drill to infiltrate the office of your choice. Designed to break down into small and easily concealed parts, the drill was supposed to be pressed up against the wall and held in place by the user’s belly (hence the name). Once the hole was drilled, a listening device could be slipped in (CIA / Public Domain)
7. The Pipe that Talks
Communicating with your agents in he field proving problematic? In that case you should outfit them with one of these carefully modified pipes. Hidden in the stem is a radio receiver, which would allow messages to be transmitted to anyone holding the pipe in their mouth. The messages would be silent to anyone nearby, but the jawbone of the user would resonate and pass the message to their ear canal, allowing them to hear clearly (CIA / Public Domain)
8. The Inflatable Plane
Now, let’s talk about agent extraction. Planes are great, of course, but they tend to be conspicuous and are rarely man-portable. Searching for a solution, the CIA teamed up with Goodyear (who else) to make a rubber plane which could be quickly inflated for a fast getaway. The Goodyear Inflatoplane even made a few successful test flights before someone noticed how insane the idea was and the project was quietly abandoned (US Army / Public Domain)
Sherrin, H, 2021. 10 of the Coolest Spy Gadgets in Espionage History. Available at: https://www.historyhit.com/coolest-spy-gadgets-in-espionage-history/
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