There may be no more important tool of espionage than the camera. It’s ideal for blackmail, collecting information, stealing documents, and reconnaissance. Because the technology involved is relatively simple, it’s possible to insert a camera into just about anything—and throughout history, that’s just what spy agencies have done. Here are a few objects that have doubled as cameras.
1. A copy machine
In the 1960s, the Soviet Union wanted a top-of-the-line copy machine for its embassy in Washington. They ordered a Xerox model 914 copier, which was among the best that money could buy. What the Soviets didn’t know was that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) got wind of the purchase and made an order of their own: a specialized camera, to be installed inside the machine. Xerox designed and built the camera, and assembled the copier at an abandoned bowling alley. The modified copier snapped pictures of every page copied. During regular maintenance, the Xerox repair guy would take the film and install a new roll. The project was a quiet success for the CIA.
2. A matchbox
Designed by Eastman Kodak for the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA and U.S. Army Special Forces), between 1000 and 2000 matchbox cameras were manufactured during World War II. They used 16mm roll film, and country-specific adhesives could be applied to each side. If World War II ½ breaks out, take heart: the cameras frequently turn up on eBay; good ones generally run $3000.
3. A button
The CIA, Russia's KGB, and Britain's MI6 each had custom variants of the button camera. It was bulky and required a coat for adequate concealment, and worked like this: A lens mechanism fastened through a buttonhole. On the other side was a (relatively) flat camera whose trigger mechanism ran by cord into a coat pocket. Whenever a spy wanted to take a picture, he simply reached into his pocket and pushed a lever. This caused the “button” to slide apart, at which point a photograph would snap and the button would reseal. It used 16mm subminiature film.
4. A cigarette lighter
The Echo 8 cigarette lighter camera was made in Japan in the 1950s. Sliding open the top of the lid revealed a viewfinder, and lifting the lid revealed the shutter release. A small metal door on the side of the lighter opened when the shutter release was pressed, and closed after a photograph was taken. Alongside the windscreen was a recessed film advance wheel, which could then be turned. After twenty photographs were snapped, it would turn freely, letting the spy know that it was time for a new roll. (The camera used 8mm film.) You could even adjust the aperture and exposure with small levers. And yes, the lighter was fully functional.
5. A necktie
Minox cameras, designed by Walter Zapp, a Latvian inventor, were tremendously popular in spy circles because of their size and quality. The Toychka necktie camera, manufactured for the KGB, used a variant of the Minox and worked much like the button camera. A special harness fastened the camera to the spy’s body, and the lens was disguised as a tiepin. A cord ran to a pants pocket.
6. A satellite
This one seems like a no-brainer, but it was, in fact, a triumph of design, engineering, and execution. The CORONA satellite reconnaissance program was accelerated after a U-2 spy plane was downed over the Soviet Union in 1960. With imagery intelligence out of commission, geospatial intelligence became priority. It took 14 tries before a working CORONA spy satellite was successfully placed in orbit. Every week, the satellite dropped a capsule containing three thousand feet of film—scrutinizing roughly 1.65 million square miles of Soviet territory. Notably, these capsules didn’t float gently to the ground for a relaxed pickup. Rather, they had to be snatched midair over the Pacific Ocean by an Air Force transport plane.
7. A pigeon
The pigeon cam wasn’t actually inside the pigeon—not that such a concept was unthinkable. (See: Project Acoustic Kitty.) Rather, lightweight, battery-powered cameras were strapped to the chests of pigeons for aerial reconnaissance. (Earlier attempts at pigeon photography, before the lightweight camera was developed, resulted in overburdened pigeons weighed down over Washington, and forced to walk home.) The cameras were set to automatic, and the homing pigeons were released over the target area. Details and successes of the pigeon photography program remain classified.
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