25 Regal Facts About Queen Elizabeth II

Jane Barlow, Pool/Getty Images
Jane Barlow, Pool/Getty Images

On April 21, Queen Elizabeth II will celebrate her 93rd birthday—and her first of two official birthdays. Though millions of words have been written about the world's longest-reigning monarch, few people know the woman behind the crown, or even what her daily duties entail. In honor of Her Majesty, here are some things you might not know about this royal legend, and why it's good to be the Queen.

1. She wasn't born an heir apparent to the throne.

The Queen Elizabeth (3rd-L, future Queen Mother), her daughter Princess Elizabeth (4th-L, future Queen Elizabeth II), Queen Mary (C) , Princess Margaret (5th-L) and the King George VI (R), pose at the balcony of the Buckingham Palace in December 1945.
The Queen Elizabeth (3rd-L, future Queen Mother), her daughter Princess Elizabeth (4th-L, future Queen Elizabeth II), Queen Mary (C) , Princess Margaret (5th-L) and the King George VI (R), pose at the balcony of the Buckingham Palace in December 1945.
AFP, Getty Images

For the first 10 years of her life, Princess Elizabeth was a relatively minor royal—her status was akin to Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie of York today—but that all changed with the death of her grandfather, King George V, in 1936.

The next in the line of royal succession was Elizabeth's uncle, Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne less than a year after taking it so that he could marry an American socialite named Wallis Simpson. Edward didn't have any children at the time, so his brother Albert (Elizabeth’s father) ascended to the throne, taking the name George VI and making the then-10-year-old Elizabeth the first in line to become Queen.

2. Her younger sister gave her a family nickname.

Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth in 1933.
Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth in 1933.
AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth and Margaret were the only children of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and King George VI, who said of his daughters: "Lilibet is my pride, Margaret my joy." "Lilibet," of course, is Elizabeth, who earned her nickname because Margaret—whom the family affectionately called Margot—constantly mispronounced her big sister’s name.

3. She didn't go to school.

Princesses Elizabeth (right) and Margaret at Waterloo Station, London, 1939.
Princesses Elizabeth (right) and Margaret at Waterloo Station, London, 1939.
Fox Photos, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Heirs apparent don’t just show up to primary school like normal kids. Instead, Elizabeth was tutored at home during sessions by different teachers like Henry Marten, vice-provost of Eton College (which is still for boys only), and was also given private religion lessons by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

4. But she and Margaret technically did have a teacher.

Stamps from 1937 featuring Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, The Coronation Chair, Westminster Abbey, The Coronation Coach, The Houses of Parliament, Windsor Castle, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to commemorate the King's Coronation.
Stamps from 1937 featuring Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, The Coronation Chair, Westminster Abbey, The Coronation Coach, The Houses of Parliament, Windsor Castle, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to commemorate the King's Coronation.
London Express, Getty Images

Just because she didn't attend school doesn't mean that Elizabeth didn't receive an education. She received the bulk of it through her nanny, Marion Crawford, who the royal family referred to as "Crawfie." Crawford would eventually be ostracized by the royal family for writing a tell-all book in 1953 called The Little Princesses without their permission; the book recounted Crawford's experiences with Elizabeth during her younger days.

5. She wanted to go to war, but was too young.

Queen consort Elizabeth holds Princess Margaret's hand as Princess Elizabeth follows, in 1936.
Queen consort Elizabeth holds Princess Margaret's hand as Princess Elizabeth follows, in 1936.
Central Press, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When World War II broke out in 1939, Elizabeth—then just a teenager—begged her father to join the effort somehow. She started out by making radio broadcasts geared toward raising the morale of British children. During one of the broadcasts, the 14-year-old princess reassured listeners, "I can truthfully say to you all that we children at home are full of cheerfulness and courage. We are trying to do all we can to help our gallant sailors, soldiers, and airmen and we are trying too to bear our own share of the danger and sadness of war."

6. She eventually served in World War II.

Princess Elizabeth changing the tire of a vehicle as she trains at as ATS Officer during World War II in April 1945.
Princess Elizabeth changing the tire of a vehicle as she trains at as ATS Officer during World War II in April 1945.
Central Press, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Despite the risks, Elizabeth eventually joined the women's Auxiliary Territorial Service and trained as a truck driver and mechanic in 1945, when she was 18 years old.

Queen Elizabeth remains the only female royal family member to have entered the armed forces, and is currently the only living head of state who officially served in World War II.

7. She celebrated the end of the war by partying like her subjects.

Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in 1947.
Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in 1947.
William Vanderson, Fox Photos/Getty Images

When then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced that the war in Europe was over on May 8, 1945, people poured out into the streets of London to celebrate—including Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. The sheltered duo were allowed to sneak out of Buckingham Palace to join the revelers at their father's behest.

"It was a unique burst of personal freedom," recalled Margaret Rhodes, their cousin who went with them, "a Cinderella moment in reverse."

8. She married her cousin.

Then-Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, following their wedding ceremony in November 1947.
Then-Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, following their wedding ceremony in November 1947.
AFP, Getty Images

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and Queen Elizabeth are third cousins; both share the same great-great-grandparents: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

9. Elizabeth and her husband have known each other since childhood.

A family portrait in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace on the wedding day of Princess Elizabeth (future Queen Elizabeth II) and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh on November 20, 1947.
A family portrait in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace on the wedding day of Princess Elizabeth (future Queen Elizabeth II) and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh on November 20, 1947.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Philip, son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg, first met Elizabeth when she was only 8 years old and he was 14. Both attended the wedding of Princess Marina of Greece (Prince Philip's cousin) and Prince George, the Duke of Kent (Elizabeth’s uncle).

Five years later the pair met again when George VI brought Elizabeth to tour the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, where Philip was a cadet. In a personal note, Elizabeth recalled falling for the young soldier-in-the-making: "I was 13 years of age and he was 18 and a cadet just due to leave. He joined the Navy at the outbreak of war, and I only saw him very occasionally when he was on leave—I suppose about twice in three years," she wrote. "Then when his uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, were away he spent various weekends away with us at Windsor."

10. She didn't tell her parents she was getting hitched.

Princess Elizabeth, Philip Mountbatten, Queen Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother), King George VI, and Princess Margaret pose in Buckingham Palace on July 9, 1947, the day the engagement of Princess Elizabeth & Philip Mountbatten was officially announced.
Princess Elizabeth (future Queen Elizabeth II), Philip Mountbatten (also the Duke of Edinburgh), Queen Elizabeth (future Queen Mother), King George VI, and Princess Margaret pose in Buckingham Palace on July 9, 1947, the day the engagement of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten was officially announced.
AFP/Getty Images

In 1946, Philip proposed to Elizabeth when the former planned a month-long visit to Balmoral, her royal estate in Scotland. She accepted the proposal without even contacting her parents. But when George VI finally caught wind of the pending nuptials he would only officially approve if they waited to announce the engagement until after her 21st birthday.

The official public announcement of the engagement finally came nearly a year later on July 9, 1947.

11. She has a very royal name.

Princess Elizabeth (left) and her mother, Queen consort Elizabeth, in 1951.
Princess Elizabeth (left) and her mother, Queen consort Elizabeth, in 1951.
Reg Speller, Fox Photos/Getty Images

She's the second British monarch named Elizabeth, but Elizabeth II wasn't named after Henry VIII's famous progeny. Queen Elizabeth II's birth name is Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, after the names of her mother, Elizabeth, her paternal great-grandmother, Queen Alexandra, and her paternal grandmother, Queen Mary.

12. She got to choose her own surname.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip with two of their children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, circa 1951.
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip with two of their children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, circa 1951.
OFF, AFP/Getty Images

Technically, the Queen's last name is "Windsor," which was first chosen by George V in 1917 after the royal family wanted to distance themselves from "Saxe-Coburg-Gotha"—the dynasty to which they belonged—for sounding too Germanic during World War I.

But as a way to distinguish themselves from the rest of the royal family, in 1960 Elizabeth and Philip adopted the official surname Windsor-Mountbatten. (Fans will surely remember that the surname drama was briefly discussed in Netflix’s series The Crown.)

13. She has two birthdays.

Princess Elizabeth just before her 21st birthday in April 1947.
Princess Elizabeth just before her 21st birthday in April 1947.
AFP/Getty Images

Like most British monarchs, Elizabeth gets to celebrate her birthday twice, and the reason why boils down to seasonably appropriate pomp and circumstance.

She was born on April 21, 1926, but April was deemed too cold and liable to fall during inclement weather. So instead, her official state-recognized birthday occurs on a Saturday in late May or June, so that the celebration can be held during warmer months. The specific date varies year to year in the UK, and usually coincides with Trooping the Colour, Britain’s annual military pageant.

14. Her coronation was televised against her wishes.

Queen Elizabeth's coronation, June 1953
Queen Elizabeth's coronation, June 1953.
AFP, Getty Images

Elizabeth officially ascended to the throne at just 25 years of age when her father, George VI, died on February 6, 1952. Elizabeth was in Kenya at the time of his death and returned home as her country's Queen. As fans of The Crown will remember, the hubbub surrounding her coronation was filled with ample amounts of drama.

The notoriously camera-shy Elizabeth—who didn't even allow photos to be taken of her wedding—didn't want the event televised, and others believed that broadcasting the coronation to commoners would break down upper-class traditions of only allowing members of British high society to witness the event. A Coronation Commission, chaired by Philip, was set up to weigh the options, and they initially decided to only allow cameras in a single area of Westminster Abbey "west of the organ screen," before allowing the entire thing to be televised with one minor caveat: no close-ups on Elizabeth's face.

15. She paid for her wedding dress using war ration coupons.

A 1947 sketch of Princess Elizabeth's wedding dress by Norman Hartnell.
A 1947 sketch of Princess Elizabeth's wedding dress by Norman Hartnell.
Central Press, Getty Images

Still reeling from an atmosphere of post-war austerity, Elizabeth used ration coupons and a 200-coupon supplement from the government to pay for her wedding dress. But don't be fooled, the dress was extremely elegant; it was made of ivory duchesse silk, encrusted with 10,000 imported seed pearls, took six months to make, and sported a 13-foot train. (It cost just under $40,000 to recreate the dress for The Crown.)

16. She doesn't need a passport to travel.

Queen Elizabeth II in Nuku'alofa, Tonga in December 1953.
Queen Elizabeth II in Nuku'alofa, Tonga in December 1953.
STRINGER, AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth II is the world's most well-traveled head of state, visiting more than 115 countries between more than 270 official state visits, but she doesn't even own a passport. Since all British passports are officially issued in the Queen’s name, she technically doesn't need one.

17. She doesn't need a driver's license either.

Queen Elizabeth II drives a car in 1958.
Queen Elizabeth II drives a car in 1958.
Bob Haswell, Express/Getty Images

It's not just because she has a fleet of chauffeurs. Britain also officially issues driver's licenses in Elizabeth’s name, so don’t expect her to show off her ID when she gets pulled over taking other heads of state for a spin in her Range Rover.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, recounted to The Sunday Times the time when Elizabeth drove former Saudi crown prince Abdullah around the grounds of Balmoral: "To his surprise, the Queen climbed into the driving seat, turned the ignition and drove off," he said. "Women are not—yet—allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and Abdullah was not used to being driven by a woman, let alone a queen."

18. She doesn't have to pay taxes (but chooses to anyway).

Queen Elizabeth rides in a carriage in 2000.
ODD ANDERSEN, AFP/Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth has voluntarily paid income and capital gains taxes since 1992, but has always been subject to Value Added Tax.

19. She survived an assassination attempt.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II rides a horse side saddle and salutes during a Trooping of the Colour ceremony in London in 1952.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II rides a horse side saddle and salutes during a Trooping of the Colour ceremony in London in 1952.
STRINGER, AFP/Getty Images

During the 1981 Trooping the Colour, the Queen led a royal procession on horseback down the Mall toward Buckingham Palace when shots rang out. A 17-year-old named Marcus Sarjeant, who was obsessed with the assassinations of figures like John Lennon and John F. Kennedy, fired a series of blanks toward Elizabeth. Sarjeant—who wrote in his diary, "I am going to stun and mystify the whole world with nothing more than a gun"—was thankfully unable to purchase live ammunition in the UK. He received a prison sentence of five years under the 1848 Treason Act, but was released in October 1984.

20. She also survived an intruder coming into her bedroom.

Queen Elizabeth II in Australia in 1954.
Queen Elizabeth II in Australia in 1954.
Fox Photos, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A year after the Trooping the Colour incident, Elizabeth had another run-in. But instead of near Buckingham Palace, this time it was inside Buckingham Palace. On July 9, 1982, a man named Michael Fagen managed to climb over the Palace's barbed wire fence, shimmy up a drain pipe, and eventually sneak into the Queen's bedroom.

While reports at the time said Fagen and the Queen had a long conversation before he was apprehended by palace security, Fagen told The Independent the Queen didn't stick around to chat: "She went past me and ran out of the room; her little bare feet running across the floor."

21. She technically owns all the dolphins in the UK.

The HMAS Vengeance seen from a helicopter, as the Australian Naval crew spell out the signature of Queen Elizabeth II on the deck, in 1954.
The HMAS Vengeance seen from a helicopter, as the Australian Naval crew spell out the signature of Queen Elizabeth II on the deck, in 1954.
Keystone, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In addition to owning all of the country's dolphins, she owns all the sturgeon and whales, too. A still-valid statute from the reign of King Edward II in 1324 states, "Also the King shall have ... whales and sturgeons taken in the sea or elsewhere within the realm," meaning most aquatic creatures are technically labeled "fishes royal," and are claimed on behalf of the Crown.

As the song goes, "Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves!"

22. She has her own special money to give to the poor.

Queen Elizabeth II hands out maundy money in 2004.
Queen Elizabeth II hands out maundy money in 2004.
PHIL NOBLE, AFP/Getty Images

Known as "Maundy Money," the Queen has silver coins—currently with Elizabeth's likeness on the front—that are given to pensioners in a ceremony called Maundy Thursday. The royal custom dates back to the 13th century, in which the royal family was expected to wash the feet of and distribute gifts to penniless subjects as a symbolic gesture to honor Jesus’s act of washing the feet of the poor in the Bible. Once the 18th century rolled around and washing people's dirty feet wasn't seen as befitting of a royal, the act was replaced with money allowances bequeathed by the monarch.

23. Gin is her drink of choice.

Queen Elizabeth II sipping a drink.
RUSSEL MILLARD, AFP/Getty Images

The Queen drinks gin mixed with Dubonnet (a fortified wine) and a slice of lemon on the rocks every day before lunch. She also reportedly drinks wine at lunch and has a glass of champagne every evening.

24. She created her own breed of dogs.

Queen Elizabeth with her dog Susan, circa 1959.
Queen Elizabeth with her dog Susan, circa 1959.
AFP, Getty Images

Elizabeth has a famous, avowed love of Corgis (she has owned more than 30 of them during her reign; her last one, Willow, passed away in 2018), but what about Dorgis? She currently owns two Dorgis (Candy and Vulcan), a crossbreed she engineered when one of her Corgis mated with a Dachshund named Pipkin that belonged to Princess Margaret.

25. She's on social media … kind of.

Queen Elizabeth II tours a Canadian Blackberry factory in 2010.
Queen Elizabeth II tours a Canadian Blackberry factory in 2010.
John Stillwell, Pool/Getty Images

The Queen joined Twitter in July 2009 under the handle @RoyalFamily, and sent the first tweet herself, but hasn't personally maintained the page since then (she has a digital communications team for that). She's also on Facebook (and no, you cannot poke The Royal Family) and in March 2019 the Queen published her first Instagram post to the family's account.

This story originally ran in 2017.

7 Ships That Disappeared Without a Trace

iStock/stock_colors
iStock/stock_colors

There’s something ghoulishly fascinating about a mysterious disappearance, and our vast oceans offer seemingly endless space in which to vanish. The true fate of many of these ships will never be known, but speculation suggests that storms, piracy, mutiny, accidental bombing, and even the attack of a giant squid could be responsible for their vanishings. Below are seven ships that have disappeared without leaving a trace.

1. The Patriot // The disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston

Theodosia Burr Alston (1783–1813) was the daughter of American politician and third vice president of the United States Aaron Burr. Theodosia had a privileged upbringing and a good education, and in 1801 she married wealthy landowner Joseph Alston, who went on to become governor of South Carolina. Sadly, in 1812, Theodosia lost her only son to a fever and she became sick with grief. Desperate for a change of scene, on New Year’s Eve 1812 she boarded the schooner Patriot in South Carolina to visit her father in New York. It is known that the ship left dock and sailed north, but what happened after that is a mystery. It never arrived in New York, and no trace of the ship or crew was ever found. A number of theories and legends have sprung up around the fate of Theodosia—some claim the ship was attacked by pirates and that she was forced to walk the plank, while others suggest that the Patriot got caught up in the War of 1812 and was sunk accidentally by an enemy ship. Perhaps most fanciful of all is the story put forward by a Karankawa Indian chief, who claimed that he rescued a woman who had washed up on shore after a shipwreck, and that before she died she gifted him her locket—with the name Theodosia inscribed upon it. Whatever the story, it is likely that after more than 200 years we shall never know the real fate of the Patriot and Theodosia Burr Alston.

2. The Merchant Royal // One of the richest shipwrecks never found

The Merchant Royal was tasked with taking treasures from the New World to Spain under the command of one Captain John Limbrey. In 1641 the ship was loaded with 100,000 pounds of gold, 400 bars of Mexican silver and a huge amount of precious jewels. As the ship entered the English waters, the weather turned bad, but unfortunately the pumps on board the ship broke and it began to take on water. Its sister ship, the Dover Merchant, with whom it had been sailing in tandem, came to the rescue of the captain and crew but were unable to take any of the cargo. The ship disappeared beneath the waves, somewhere off the coast of Land’s End.

Of course, with such valuable cargo, countless people have attempted to find the wreck, which has become known as the “Eldorado of the seas.” In 2007, it was thought that Odyssey Marine Exploration may have found the wreck after it salvaged 500,000 pieces of gold and silver from a site off the southwestern tip of Great Britain. This was later identified as treasure from a Spanish vessel—meaning that the unimagined riches of the Merchant Royal still await discovery.

3. USS Cyclops // Victim of the Bermuda Triangle?

The USS Cyclops was a huge steel-hulled fuel ship, tasked with carrying coal and other useful supplies for the U.S. Navy in the 1910s. On her final journey, the Cyclops set sail from Rio de Janeiro, with a full load of 10,800 tons of manganese ore and over 300 people on board. On March 4, 1918 the ship was spotted for the last time as it left Barbados and sailed into what we now sometimes call the Bermuda Triangle. The ship seemingly disappeared without a trace, and the case has been seen as especially mysterious since no distress call was made and no bad weather was reported in the region. Theories began to surface (some more imaginative than others) that the ship had been sunk by the Germans, attacked by a giant squid or octopus, or been victim of a violent mutiny. A huge search for the Cyclops was launched with a number of boats and planes scouring the area for debris or survivors, but nothing of the enormous ship was ever seen again.

4. The Witchcraft // The “unsinkable” luxury yacht

On December 22, 1967, experienced yachtsman Dan Burack and his friend, Father Patrick Horgan, set sail in the 23-foot luxury yacht Witchcraft to see the holiday lights off the coast of Miami. Unfortunately after just one mile the pair experienced difficulty when it seemed as if the yacht had hit something. Burack calmly called the Miami Coast Guard to report the trouble and request assistance. The official who took the call later commented that Burack seemed unconcerned—perhaps because the yacht was fitted with a special flotation device that was supposed to make the vessel unsinkable. The Coast Guard arrived at the scene just 19 minutes after the call, and were surprised to find no trace of the large yacht, no debris, and no sign of Burack or Horgan. Over the next six days, hundreds of square miles of ocean were searched, but nothing was ever found, and the Witchcraft has been chalked up as another vessel mysteriously lost to the Bermuda Triangle.

5. Andrea Gail // Lost in the “perfect storm”

The Andrea Gail was a 72-foot-long-liner boat that fished in the North Atlantic for swordfish. In September 1991 the ship, along with several other fishing vessels, set sail from Gloucester, Massachusetts for the last fishing session of the season. By October, the Andrea Gail and its six-man crew was out off the coast of Newfoundland when the confluence of terrible weather fronts conspired to create what has been dubbed “the perfect storm.” The massively powerful winds were whipping waves as high as 100 feet, and any ship caught in their path faced being sucked into the wave and flipped over repeatedly. The devastating storm battered the coast of New England and Canada, and after the worst of it had passed and the Andrea Gail had failed to return to port, a number of rescue missions set out to find the ship—but nothing was ever found. The story of the storm and the imagined fate of the Andrea Gail and her crew was later told in the book The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, as well as a Hollywood movie of the same name.

6. The USS Porpoise // Caught in a typhoon

USS Porpoise was a brig involved in 19th century exploration and surveying missions, taking part in a voyage in 1838 that confirmed the existence of Antarctica and later circumnavigating the globe. In 1854 the ship set sail from Hong Kong carrying 69 men in order to carry out a survey of the South Sea Islands. Somewhere between China and Taiwan, the ship sailed into dense fog and was separated from its partner ship, the USS Vincennes, and never seen again. Many ships searched for the ill-fated brig for over a year, but no sign was ever found, and it's thought to have been wrecked in a typhoon with all hands lost.

7. HMS Sappho // Presumed Wrecked Off Australian Coast

Over the course of a 20-year career, the British Navy ship HMS Sappho worked to suppress the slave trade off the coast of West Africa, intercepting a number of ships loaded with slaves and freeing hundreds of people. In 1857, after wrongly chasing down and boarding an American ship—an event that caused something of a diplomatic crisis between America and Great Britain—the ship was ordered to set sail to Australia. The Sappho reached Cape Town without incident, and from there headed toward the Bass Strait, where it was last spotted by a passing brig on February 18, 1878. Bad weather was reported in the area, and it has been assumed that high winds caused the ship to founder and sink. No sign of the 147 crewmembers was ever found, but rumors abounded that the captain, Fairfax Moresby, had somehow escaped the wreck and made it to an island off Australia, where he was said to have lost his mind.

Bonus: Baychimo // Arctic ghost ship

The SS Baychimo somewhere in Canada
The SS Baychimo somewhere in Canada
Mysterious Disappearances, Wikimedia // Public Domain

The SS Baychimo started life as a German trading vessel before being given to Great Britain after World War I as part of reparations. The Baychimo came under the ownership of the Hudson Bay Company, and made many voyages across the Atlantic from Scotland to Canada to trade with local Inuit tribes. In 1931, while journeying to Vancouver with a cargo of furs, the Baychimo fell victim to an early winter, as ice floes surrounded the ship and locked it in an icy embrace. The crew escaped the stricken vessel and fled across the ice floes to safety, but some returned a few days later to try to rescue the ship and its valuable cargo.

After over a month of braving the treacherous weather in a flimsy camp, a huge blizzard hit and the remaining crew lost sight of the ship. Once the storm had cleared, the watching crew were surprised to find the Baychimo had disappeared. They assumed it had sunk without trace. A week later the ship was spotted by an Inuit hunter and the crew raced back on board to gather as much of the cargo as possible. The captain decided the ship was too badly damaged to be seaworthy and so abandoned it, thinking it would soon break apart. How wrong he was. Over the years, the Baychimo was sighted a number of times, sometimes caught fast in ice, other times floating ghost-like through the Arctic waters. The last confirmed sighting was in 1969—an astonishing 37 years after it had been abandoned to its fate.

This list was first published in 2016 and republished in 2019.

The Time the Soviets Gave the U.S. a Hidden Spy Device—And It Took Seven Years to Discover It

A replica of the Great Seal bug at the National Cryptologic Museum
A replica of the Great Seal bug at the National Cryptologic Museum
Daderot, Wikimedia // CC0 1.0

In the summer of 1945, at the tail end of World War II, a group of Russian schoolchildren arrived at the residence of the United States ambassador in Moscow—and they came bearing a gift. The Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization 1, a kind of Soviet version of the Boy Scouts, presented a large carved wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States to U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman, calling it a gesture of friendship to their wartime allies, the United States.

Harriman hung the wooden plaque in his study at the Spaso House, which served as his residence. But what he didn't know was that the plaque contained a cutting-edge listening device, used by the Soviets to eavesdrop on his conversations whenever they wanted. The plaque hung undetected in the ambassador’s study until 1952—a staggering seven years. It would come to be known colloquially as "The Thing."

The Walls Have Ears

A black-and-white photo of Leon Theremin demonstrating his theremin in 1927
Leon Theremin demonstrating his theremin in 1927
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The device was the brainchild of the Russian inventor Léon Theremin. In the U.S., Theremin is best known for his eponymous musical instrument, the theremin, which he invented while working for the Soviet military in 1920. But almost two decades after creating the instrument, Theremin found himself in a Siberian gulag. Once in the prison system, he was conscripted to create high-tech radio listening devices in a secret laboratory.

With his second-greatest creation, The Thing, Theremin nearly upstaged himself. Unbeknownst to casual viewers, the wooden Great Seal of the United States he created was like a sandwich cookie, with a tiny capacitive membrane connected to a small quarter-wavelength antenna—which together acted as a microphone—standing in for the cream filling. Theremin's hidden bug wasn't connected to a battery or power supply; the device only worked when a radio signal of the correct frequency was sent to the device from an external transmitter. This signal came via a van parked nearby that could broadcast a strong radio signal, activating the Thing and allowing the Soviets to eavesdrop, via a radio receiver, on unwittingly broadcasted conversations from within the Spaso House study.

Suspicious Voices

Exterior of Spaso House, residence of U.S. Ambassador in Moscow
Exterior of Spaso House, the residence of U.S. Ambassador in Moscow
U.S. Embassy Moscow, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It was the British who first noticed something was amiss. In 1951, a British radio operator was monitoring Soviet air force radio traffic, in their own bit of espionage, when he recognized the voice of the British Air Attaché. It's not exactly clear what happened next, but the following year, an American listening to military radio traffic picked up a conversation featuring American-accented voices that clearly seemed to come from the Spaso House. A few bug-searching sweeps of the embassy, coordinated with the move-in of incoming U.S. ambassador George F. Kennan in May 1952, turned up nothing. But on September 12, 1952, with suspicions still raised, the State Department's security technicians Joseph "the Rug Merchant" Bezjian and John Ford conducted another search for good measure, knowing that the Soviets sometimes removed bugs and later replanted them.

At Bezjian's directive, Kennan sat at his desk and dictated an important-sounding message to his secretary while Bezjian searched the room with his radio instruments. When he switched on his receiver, he picked up a signal almost immediately. Something was broadcasting Kennan's voice from down in the study, and it was something very close by. Minutes later, the team found just what they were looking for—hanging right on the wall.

That night, Bezjian slept with the device under his pillow so that it couldn't be stolen back by the Soviets. It was shipped to Washington, D.C., the next day to be studied.

Kennan published his memoirs of the period in 1967. In the book, he wrote chillingly about the moment he realized that the Soviets had a microphone in his own private study: "It is difficult to make plausible the weirdness of the atmosphere in that room, while this strange scene was in progress … At this particular moment, one was acutely conscious of the unseen presence in the room of a third person: our attentive monitor. It seemed that one could almost hear his breathing. All were aware that a strange and sinister drama was in progress."

Turnabout Is Fair Play

The U.S. didn't initially confront the Soviets about their discovery, and the device was kept secret from the media for several years. But the word got out in 1960: On May 1 of that year, the Soviets shot down an American U2 spy plane and then called a meeting with the United Nations Security Council, calling the U.S.'s espionage an act of aggression. The Thing was subsequently trotted out to prove that spying went both ways between the countries—and had for years.

By then, however, the device was well-known to British and American espionage agencies. After examining the bug's technology, the Brits were able to improve upon it and develop a listening device codenamed SATYR, which was utilized by the British, American, Canadian, and Australian militaries throughout the '50s.

It's not entirely certain where the Thing is located today. It was handed over to the FBI for analysis soon after its discovery, and at some point its membrane was damaged and had to be replaced. It was then sent to the National Security Agency, but it's not clear what happened after that. (The NSA likes their secrets.) However, there's a very faithful copy on display at the National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade, Maryland, along with a detailed exhibit showing exactly how Theremin and his lab built the device.

Unlike the original, handling the replica is encouraged; visitors can open up the wooden cabinet to view the recreated microphone and the resonant cavity inside. It's a way to engage with a particularly bizarre chapter in U.S.-Soviet relations—a time when even though the nations pretended to be friends, it was wise to beware schoolchildren bearing gifts.

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