Real Spy Gadgets

If you ever watched a James Bond film, did you stop to think about how plausible or implausible some of the Bond gadgets are? Real spies existed before they were ever portrayed in the movies – and in fact, some of their actual spy gadgets rival those featured in the Bond films.

The Bulgarian Umbrella

Used by the Bulgarian secret service and possibly designed by the KGB, the Bulgarian umbrella was an umbrella with a hidden pneumatic mechanism designed to shoot out small pellets of ricin, a deadly poison. It’s thought that this umbrella was used in an assassination in London on 7 September 1978, and again, in the same year, in an unsuccessful assassination attempt in Paris.

The London assassination of Georgi Markov occurred on the same day as the birthday of Bulgaria’s State Council Chairman, Todor Zhivkov, whom Markov had often targeted in his anti-communist writing. Markov was approached while waiting to cross a road, and later said he felt what he believed to be an insect bite to the back of his right thigh. He also said that the man who approached him fumbled with his umbrella, apologized in a foreign accent and then hurried away.

What Markov first thought was an insect bite was in fact a small pellet launched from the chamber of the umbrella, which had been covered in ricin. Because ricin acts slowly, it can be difficult to detect and identify – but three days after the attack, Markov died.

In the same year, ricin was also found in the body of Vladimir Kostov, a Bulgarian defector. Unlike Markov, Kostov survived the umbrella attack.

The Martini Olive Bug

Notorious private investigator Hal Lipsett was the creator of the martini olive bug, and of various other spy devices. He was chief investigator for Sam Dash in the Watergate scandal, but also known as a sleazy private eye who built most of his career on photographing illicit couples in bed.

In the 1960s, Lipsett was invited to demonstrate the capabilities of concealed recording devices to the Senate for Constitutional Rights Subcomittee. Lipsett chose to impress his audience by demonstrating an array of innovative, miniature devices and then to play back his own testimony, recorded using bugs he had had concealed in the room the whole time. Among the miniature devices he showed off, and by far the most popular, was the martini olive bug. This was a tiny recording device hidden within the pimento of an olive, with a toothpick containing a copper wire to serve as an antenna. Unfortunately gin couldn’t be added to the glass without causing a short – but an agent could carry what appeared to be an “already drunk” martini, while surreptitiously recording conversations.

The olive martini bug certainly did impress the subcommittee members, who kept drawing attention back to it during the presentation. However, the members weren’t pleased to hear that the entire presentation was recorded without their consent, and headlines the next day read “Secret mikes irk senators.”

Hidden Guns

No article on spy gadgets would be complete without mentioning hidden guns. Far surpassing the gun-in-a-cane types of designs we’ve seen in the movies is the lipstick pistol.

This is an incredibly tiny, 4.5 mm single-shot pistol, fired by pointing the application end at the target and twisting the handle about a centimeter clockwise – the exact motion you’d make if you were applying the lipstick.

Another strangely triggered weapon was the pipe gun. In this case, a trigger was placed in the bowl of the pipe, where you’d place the tobacco – and it was designed to fire if ignited. This one sounds as dangerous for the attacker as for the target!

Jeff writes for HVDH, an industrial engineering company specializing in tool making – though not yet for spy use.