Top 10 real-life spy gadgets

With the news that MI5 is looking for a Chief Scientific Adviser, spy novelist Jeremy Duns reveals his ten favourite real 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 dissident writer and broadcaster Georgi Markov. KGB technicians converted the tip of an ordinary 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.

Times Archive: Tiny platinum ball is link in attacks on Bulgarian defectors

2. Dart gun

It wasn’t just Soviet bloc spies who used such techniques, though. In a 1975 US Senate hearing on intelligence, 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, as far as he knew, this and other weapons had never been used, but he 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 for agent who became lost - if they were taken prisoner, for example. By cutting off the buttons and balancing them on each other, they turned into compasses.

Times Archive: Cloak and Swordsmen

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 trying to open it the wrong way. If the right-hand lock was held down and simultaneously pushed to the right, the briefcase would click open safely; otherwise, the left-hand lock would ignite.

Churchill's Wizards reviewed by Max Hastings

5. Exploding rats

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

SOE in the Land of the Eagle reviewed by Max Hastings

6. Cigarette-case gun

In 1954, Soviet agent Nicolai 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 Khokhlov's job to the wrong man: “I wouldn’t have gone over to the Yanks.”

Times Archive: Surrender To Americans Of Russian Terrorist

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 which was 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.

Times Archive: Little Suburban House was Communication Centre for Spy Ring (more here )

8. Wallet document camera

Most intelligence agencies want to recruit people with access to top-secret material, but once recruited they still have to photograph the documents you’re after. If the security is too tight to remove documents 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 small leather pocket 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.

Times Archive: Airman 'A traitor and for all money'

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: 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 intelligence agencies still can't resist gadgetry. 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.

Jeremy Duns's spy thriller Free Agent is published by Simon and Schuster this month. Read an extract on his website (5.11.2009)

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