10 of the world’s coolest spy gadgets



2016-06-28 15:13:56

The urge to find out what your enemies are up to, or to obscure your own activities, has led to some of the greatest technological developments in history.

From Roman era cyphers to camera-equipped drones the size of insects, the ingeniousness is mind boggling.

Who knows what they’re up to now?

Here’s our rundown of the 10 coolest spy gadgets ever created.  

10. Robotic catfish

In the 1990s the CIA came up with the idea of using a robotic catfish for its covert operations.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Incredibly they actually built a fully operational model. It’s powered by remote control and features a ballast system that allows it to alter its depth.

It was used to collect water samples, most likely from around the outflows of enemy chemical plants.

9. The Bulgarian umbrella 

One of the most famous spy gadgets of all time, the Bulgarian umbrella looks just like a regular umbrella but conceals a deadly secret.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The tip actually contains a lethal poison.

An assassin would simply stab the intended target and melt into the crowd. It’s known to have been used twice by the Bulgarian secret service (hence the name) in 1978 – once successfully in the killing of dissident writer Georgi Markov on London's Waterloo Bridge, while he waited for the bus. 

8. Letter remover 

A shoe-in for most ingenious device on our list, this letter remover was developed by the Americans during the second world war.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The business end would be inserted into the top of an envelope and the letter twirled around it before being extracted – all without breaking the seal.

It could then be replaced after being read and the recipient would be none the wiser.

7. Insecthopter

Unmanned drones are common today, but were practically science fiction even a few years ago.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

That’s what makes the Insecthopter, developed by the CIA in the 1970s, so remarkable.

It flew by means of wings powered by a miniature engine, was operable by remote control and was designed to carry a listening bug.  

However it seems to have been just a bit too far ahead of its time. The agency was unable to figure out how to stop it being blown off course in high winds and so it was shelved.   

6. Microdot camera

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The microdot camera was a total game changer in the world of espionage. It enabled spies to photograph documents onto a piece of film 1mm across.  

The film was so small it could easily be concealed inside a fake coin or piece of jewellery, or even disguised as a full stop in a letter.

5. Lipstick gun

Image: YouTube

Image: YouTube

This lipstick gun might seem straight out of a James Bond movie, but it actually existed.

It fired a 4.5mm bullet, allowing the Russian femme fatale it was made for to take out her target and make her escape.

You’d have to be careful not to mix it up with your regular lippy though.

4. Glove pistol

Image: YouTube

Image: YouTube

The Sedgley OSS .38, better known as the glove pistol, was designed for (very) close combat.

Worn under a glove to conceal the mechanism, it features a plunger and a barrel. When the plunger is depressed (by punching the target) the gun fires – as memorably demonstrated in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.

Up to 200 were made during the second world war, although it’s unknown if any were used.

3. Silk escape map

On the face of it, a silk escape map doesn’t sound particularly revelatory. But it actually proved a true stroke of genius.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Silk can be folded many more times than paper. An A3 size map could easily be sewn into the linings of clothing.

The idea came from a British officer named Clayton Hutton during the second world war.

He collected as many true escape stories as he could find and set the boys of Rugby School the task of determining what made up a successful escape.

The most important thing in pretty much all of the stories turned out to be a map. From then on getting maps to captured servicemen became a priority for the British.  

2. Pigeon camera 

The concept of strapping a camera to a pigeon was first tested in the early 1900s by a German inventor named Julius Neubronner.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The technique proved irresistible to the Germans early in the first world war and actually produced solid results, allowing an unprecedented bird’s eye view of the battle.

The CIA is also said to have used the technique in the 1970s, though with less success.

Strapping cameras to animals remains as popular today as ever. There are entire YouTube channels devoted to the practice.

1. Pipe radio

The CIA developed this pipe radio in the 1960s.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The inside of the stem actually hides a radio transmitter. When it’s placed against the teeth, the signal vibrates through the skull, negating the need for headphones.

This means the pensive looking man in the corner of the bar in Moscow could actually be receiving secret instructions from his handlers.

It gets 10/10 for being exactly the kind of thing you’d hoped the CIA would have been using in the 1960s.  


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