Spy craft is awesome, but there’s something about old spy technology that really captures the imagination. Spy technology from before the Internet just seems rougher and more dangerous, requiring an agent to put their life in harm’s way behind enemy lines. Microfilm, listening devices, and special smuggling procedures were just some of the tricks of the trade that made up the old spy gadgets employed by intelligence services across the globe.
Before the age of computers and hacking, organizations such as the CIA had to be very clever with how their agents operated. Movements, dead drops, and devices had to be concealed perfectly or they would be discovered, and in the intelligence business the last thing you want is for your rivals to know your movements. In fact, the CIA was so dedicated to developing new methods of espionage they tried to develop robotic animals that could be controlled wirelessly. What kinds of spy tech were used before computers and the Internet changed the game? Read below to see all kinds of cool historical spy technology.
Before satellites and drones were commonplace, the U-2 plane was a king in the intelligence gathering community. These planes were flown at incredibly high altitudes over areas of interest and snapped photos from high above. Many of these planes were flown over the USSR during the Cold War, but a massive diplomatic crisis emerged when a U-2 was shot down in Soviet air space. The pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured and President Eisenhower had to not only admit to covert aerial reconnaissance missions, but had to exchange Powers for a captured Russian spy in American custody. Almost two years later, however, it was a U-2 plane that confirmed the Soviet Union was setting up missiles in Cuba, leading to another diplomatic standoff between the two superpowers.
You know all the portable electronic devices you’ve used over the course of your entire life? Well, it turns out the CIA invented technology that made them possible. Espionage can be a very mobile profession, so the CIA needed small electronic devices they could use on the go for long periods of time to give them an edge over the Russians. The solution for this problem was the lithium-ion battery, which the CIA shared with the public in the early 1960s. The first commercial battery came out in 1968, which led to the first cardiac pacemaker that was usable in everyday life and was introduced in 1972. Now, lithium-ion batteries are all over the place.
Invented by future U.S. president Thomas Jefferson, the wheel cipher was a device used to encode and decode sensitive messages during the American Revolution. Even during his time as American’s minister to France, Jefferson used the cipher to keep diplomatic messages from being read by European powers. The device comprises 26 spinning wooden pieces, which you would use to create a message. You’d then look at the line directly above your message and copy the seemingly random corresponding letters. When someone with their own cipher put the random message in, they’d look to the line below and see the true message.
Paper is great when you’re mass producing maps and mainly selling them to road trippers, but the paper can tear and crumble very easily making it hard to read. Even worse, if you get a paper map wet it becomes pretty much useless, which would suck for spies during the rainy months. That’s why during World War II, Allied servicemen were given cloth or silk maps. Not only was cloth sturdier than paper, but it could get wet and still be perfectly usable. Sometimes, these maps were smuggled to POWs in care packages carrying Monopoly games or playing cards that could be peeled apart to reveal the tightly folded map.