12 Cool Instances of Spy Technology Before Computers and the Internet

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. 


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    The Wheel Cipher Was a Revolutionary War Encoding Device

    The Wheel Cipher Was a Revolutionary War Encoding Device
    Photo: Ryan Somma / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    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. 

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    The Dead Drop Spike Let Agents Hand Off Info Anywhere

    Once an agent obtained valuable intelligence in the field, they needed a way to give that information to their handlers. Sometimes, it wasn’t as easy as simply slipping it into their mailboxes. They needed a covert system, which usually involved special places to put packages called “dead drops” that another person could pick up at a later time. The hollow spike pictured above would be filled with intelligence, then pushed into the ground and picked up later.

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    The CIA Basically Invented Batteries as a Spy Gadget

    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. 

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    The Microdot Camera Made the Smallest Spy Pictures Ever

    Sometimes the CIA needed huge and detailed film, but if an agent needed to smuggle film on an operation, he would need something tiny. The question of how small you could go was answered with the Microdot Camera, that could take photographs that were so small they could be hidden in the letters of a book. With such small film, photos could be smuggled out on correspondence or clothing. To read the photo, you’d need a special viewer that would greatly magnify the image.