When we think of spy gadgets, we tend to think of James Bond and his arsenal of exploding cufflinks, laser-shooting pens, and high-tech cars that did all sorts of things. Real-life spies used plenty of their own gadgets throughout history, even if they weren’t always as flashy as all that. In fact, plenty of real spy gadgets were disguised as mundane objects—the kind you use every day. From cameras concealed in cigarette packs to exploding canteens to very literal bugs, here are 10 spy gadgets that were disguised as objects you might have in your own home right now.
The Tessina 35mm camera was developed in 1957 and was small enough that it could be secreted inside a pack of cigarettes. The CIA Museum has one such camera on display, which was concealed inside a pack of Parliaments in the 1960s. German Stasi operatives developed a similar approach during the Cold War. They created a fancy cigarette case that contained both real cigarettes and a camera, allowing operatives to grab a smoke and snap some pictures while they were at it.
Concealed cameras are a big deal in spy circles, for obvious reasons. While cameras are small enough these days that they can be concealed in all sorts of things, hiding a camera during the Cold War was trickier. One of the more popular examples was a self-winding camera that could actually be hidden behind a coat button, which disguised the lens. The trigger for the camera was in a coat pocket, and the self-winding feature allowed it to take multiple photos in quick succession.
A Literal Bug
In the 1970s, the CIA developed a device called an “insectothopter.” This artificial dragonfly contained a microphone inside its head and a miniature engine that allowed it to fly for around 60 seconds, across a distance of up to 650 feet. While the “insectothopter” was piloted by remote control, it proved to be impossible to steer in even the mildest of crosswinds, and so was never actually deployed in the field. This didn’t stop Russian intelligence from constructing a (non-operative) model of the insectothopter in later years, though.
Purportedly carried by some U.S. Army intelligence officers during World War II, what appeared to be an ordinary canteen for carrying water actually had a miniature explosive concealed in the bottom, which could be detonated by pulling the pin connected to the cap of the canteen by a wire.
Just like cameras and microphones, spies have found ways to conceal guns in all sorts of innocuous objects over the years, from pipes to flashlights. One of the most unlikely is the lipstick gun, which was designed by the KGB for use by their female agents during the Cold War. Disguised to look like an ordinary tube of lipstick, the single-shot guns could propel a .177-caliber round to give the ultimate “kiss of death.” Recently, when the KGB Espionage Museum in New York was forced to shutter its doors due to COVID-19, one such lipstick gun was actually sold at auction.
You know the “get out of jail free” cards in Monopoly? Turns out there was something kind of similar—albeit even more literal—during World War II. The Bicycle playing card company actually teamed up with U.S. and Allied intelligence services to create special decks of cards, in which the ace of spades concealed a hidden map piece that would help POWs escape from German prison camps.
In order to reveal the map piece, the card simply had to be soaked in water. However, size limitations meant that only part of a map could be concealed within a single card, so POWs sometimes had to get their hands on several decks in order to construct a complete map.
While these miniscule implements were initially devised to help out POWs during World War II, their utility quickly led to them being adopted by intelligence organizations around the globe. A small blade concealed within two hollow, false coin halves could potentially be accessed even when the user’s hands were bound, and the coin halves gave a solid purchase for holding and using the blade as either a cutting tool or a (fairly minor, but better than nothing) weapon. Blades were far from the only things ever concealed in coins; throughout the Cold War, small compartments within hollow coins were used for all sorts of things.
The Bulgarian Umbrella
In a ploy that would have made the Penguin proud, the KGB modified an umbrella so that it could fire a minute, poison-filled pellet, which they used to assassinate Bulgarian author and dissident Georgi Markov in London in 1978. As they attempted to reconstruct the chain of events, British authorities suspected that the umbrella may have contained a small dart loaded with a toxin called ricin. The incident became sufficiently infamous that a “Bulgarian umbrella” is now the name given to any such device.
Remember the “shoe phone” from the secret agent comedy series Get Smart? Turns out it wasn’t that far off. In the 1960s, an American diplomat was spending time in Romania. He sent his shoes out for repair, only to get them back with an unwelcome passenger—a hidden microphone and transmitter built into the heel. The actual shoe, with the heel disassembled to show the transmitter device, can be seen on display at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
This is one that you can actually try at home! Not all spy gadgets had to be particularly high-tech or sophisticated. In fact, spies have long relied on a very simple, homebrew method of passing hidden messages. You simply take the juice from a lemon, dip a paint brush in it, and use it to write a message on a piece of paper.
Once the lemon juice dries, use a normal pen to write something else on the paper—an innocuous letter, a grocery list, you name it. That’s just a diversion, though. When the intended recipient gets the piece of paper, they just have to hold it up to a candle flame or a light bulb. The heat will turn the lemon juice brown, revealing the message hidden on the paper like magic!