Spies have a never ending popularity in pop culture and if I wouldn’t know better, i’d say being a spy definitely sounds like an awesome job. Yet, we only hear about spies if they star in a movie, or if their leader is sleeping with his biographer. Which is maybe not surprising, given the sensitive nature of the job–but still, when it comes the fake-mustache-and-secret-recorders, what do we really know about spy culture?
Thanks to the great uprise in digital devices, those classic, fake mustaches and Bond-style gadgets we naturally associate with spies have for sure long been outmoded, but some of the most amazing authentic old spy kits can be seen this fall at Discovery Times Square, where a show called Spy: The Secret World of Espionage is on view until next spring.
To describe some of the objects you can view in Spy, we can for example, we can take “Charlie,” a robot fish that is built to swim as a fairly realistic impersonation of a live catfish. Amazingly, Charlie is only 12 years old–the CIA won’t reveal why he was built, but some speculate he’s intended to collect water samples around nuclear power plants and factories. Salon has already christened him with a nickname: James Pond.
Other objects in Spy hearken from World War II, like a code-making machine that encrypted Allied messages. There are plenty of secret disguise aids, like a reversible cape, and recording devices abound, from the shoe-borne variety to a super-sensitive recorder, developed by Swiss scientists, that can be worn under your clothes. The show is surprisingly topical, including several fairly recent objet d’espionnage, such as the ice pick that is said to have served as a murder weapon for Trosky in Mexico, in the 1940s, and a Chanel purse belonging to “sexy spy” Anna Chapman, who was arrested in the U.S. and returned to Russia just a few years ago.
Amidst the clutter of outmoded gadgets, what comes through clearly is the sense that information was a precious physical commodity up until a decade ago or so. Today, we walk around with whole gigabytes of data on our person–but for decades, transporting a piece of text or audio was a matter of life and death. Go check out Spy until March of next year.
The Insectohopter, a robotic dragonfly used for aerial surveillance in the 1970s.
The icepick that was–allegedly–used to murder Leon Trotsky in Mexico City.
A pair of FBI handcuffs used to arrest Russian spy Anna Chapman.
A special-purpose small key cutting kit designed for use in a motel room to allow an MI6 intelligence officer to duplicate keys for a covert entry. It was small enough to be portable, easily concealed, innocuous, and would draw no attention if packed in the boot of his car.
This precision miniature audio tape recorder was built in Switzerland to the highest possible standards. As a very slim device, it could be worn inconspicuously under normal clothing. During the Cold War the mini recorder (called the NAGRA) was very popular with MI6 for covert recordings of meetings.
During World War II, the German military and intelligence services used Enigma cipher machines to create what they thought were unbreakable messages. This intelligence coup shortened the war by an estimated two years.
The Stasi Kit, a kit of tools used by East German members of the Stasi secret police, concealed in a leather case, for spying and surveillance purposes.