MEET “CHARLIE,” A ROBOT FISH DESIGNED TO TAKE WATER SAMPLES NEAR POWER PLANTS AND FACTORIES. HE’S JUST ONE OF THE GADGETS ON VIEW AT SPY: THE SECRET WORLD OF ESPIONAGE THIS FALL.
In pop culture these days, we only hear about spies if they’re starring 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, whence comes the fake-mustache-and-secret-recorder spy culture of yore?
Thanks largely to the ubiquity of digital devices, those classic, Bond-style gadgets we associate with spies have long been outmoded. But some of the most amazing can be seen this fall at Discovery Times Square (I guess that’s a thing?), where a show called Spy: The Secret World of Espionage is on view until next spring.
In trying to describe some of the objects on view in Spy, It’s tempting to play a game of “real spy gadget or made-up joke.” For example, the keystone of the exhibit is a robot fish named "Charlie,” built to swim in 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 the Enigma 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.
A 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 (Click Image To Enlarge)
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.
COMMENTARY: The "Spy: The Secret World of Espionage" exhibit also includes the following items of interest:
- K.G.B. model of the umbrella that injected a poison ricin pellet into the Bulgarian defector Georgi Markov in 1978.
- Handmade pair of shoes made for a United States ambassador to Czechoslovakia in the 1960s that Czech intelligence officers bugged with a listening device in the heel.
- Stasi kit (see below) created molar that was hollowed out to allow microdots to be safely stored in a spy’s mouth.
- Well-preserved rat with a Velcroed body cavity that was used by Americans in Moscow for exchanges of information without agents’ actually meeting. The rodent, treated with hot pepper sauce to discourage scavenging cats, was easily tossed from a passing car for these “dead drops.”
The gadgets here are full of concealments and misdirection; nothing is what it seems. And much of it is almost quaintly old-fashioned. There are some hints of technological experimentation: a Stasi attaché case fitted with an infrared flash camera that could take pictures in the dark, or the C.I.A. bug that was built inside a cinder block in the visitors’ area of a Soviet embassy and could drill its own listening hole.
But most of these objects, tools of the trade over a half-century, are not the stuff of the “Mission Impossible” franchise; they are almost all deliberately mundane. They are not meant to startle; they are meant to fade into the background. They work like tricks sold in a magic shop. And they must be used with similar skill.
Something else is similar: once explained, the magic is gone. The objects used in espionage can almost seem silly. Really! Grown people sprinkling dust (nitrophenylpentadienal) on objects to track the movements of whoever touched them? Using a hat, glasses and a fake mustache as a disguise? Employing a hollowed-out nickel to hide top-secret microfilm? All of espionage can easily seem like a kid’s game, except for the trails of blood and insight that are invariably left in its wake.
And this show, produced by Base Entertainment, contains more than enough to make it resemble a child’s game: interactive screens on which you can disguise a photo of yourself; kiosks where your voice can be distorted and filtered; a mist-filled dark room with shifting laser beams that challenge you to make your way across, without breaking the circuit. (A password-oriented interactive game is too lame for its climactic position in the exhibition.)
There are also larger objects here that reveal, more dramatically, that technological sophistication is not a requirement, nor is it something that necessarily increases over time. Next to a collapsible motor scooter with which Allied spies parachuted behind enemy lines during World War II is a saddle, draped with an Afghan blanket, that was used by a C.I.A. officer riding across the forbidding terrain during the first months after the Sept. 11 attacks.
If you are a history or nostalgia buff, and just happen to be in New York City between now and the end of spring, visiting the "Spy: The Secret World of Espionage" exhibit in Times Square could be a very worthwhile experience. Tickets are as follows:
- Adults - $27.00
- Kids (4-12) - $19.50
- Seniors (65+) - $23.50
- Group discounts are available
Courtesy of an article dated November 16, 2012 appearing in Fast Company Design