Real Spy Cameras of the 20th Century
The coolest covert cameras of the Cold War.
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Spy photography can be traced back to the early part of the 20th century—a time when Great Britain could still refer to itself as an empire. While it’s not surprising that governments and armed forces sought to commandeer photography for intelligence operations, it is surprising that it was nearly a century after the first photograph was taken before the technology entered the shady underworld of global espionage.
Given all the political chaos and revolutionary furor of the twentieth century, it seems unlikely that the women’s suffrage movement was the catalyst for the first applications of spy photography, but such were the times.
But as the countless spy movies of the later 20th century suggested, spies agencies around the world began developing more and more small, stealthy cameras. Many of the designs have been declassified, and provide a cool look back at the history of photography in covert operations. James Bond, eat your heart out.
Scotland Yard and Women's Suffrage
In the years prior to World War I, the British government saw the suffragettes as one of the greatest threats to the empire. According to BBC News, one detective from Scotland Yard even took it upon himself to covertly photograph a ring of suffrage leaders who had recently been imprisoned.
Using a Ross Telecentric camera lens, this photographer snapped photos of the women as they traversed a prison yard in London, capturing what some consider to be the first spy photograph. But the Ross Telecentric lens was anything but compact, especially when attached to the bulky cameras of the early 20th century. It's not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of tiny spy gadgets.
Minox: The First Spy Camera
Most experts point to the Minox subminiature camera as the first spy camera. Developed by German-Latvian inventor Walter Zapp, the Minox subminiature was manufactured in Riga, Latvia, from 1937 to 1943. Although both the Soviets and Germans occupied Riga at different points during World War II, neither used it for intelligence gathering—its appeal was mainly as a marvel of engineering rather than a potentially useful tool.
But during the Cold War, both the Western and Eastern Blocs used these cameras in their operations—the Minox B, in particular. The Minox has a rich history and is widely regarded as the preeminent spy camera.
The Minox was so popular during the Cold War that some agencies developed gadgets specifically for the camera. The East German HVA even designed an inconspicuous brush to fit and conceal a Minox B.
CIA: Stealth First
A couple years ago, the CIA Museum showcased a number of obsolete spy gadgets used throughout the Cold War, some of which appeared straight out of a Bond film.
The Microdot Camera was used primarily for document photography and transmission. Information was much more difficult to transfer in the days before email and fax machines. But with this device, agents could photograph entire pages onto a piece of film the size of the period at the end of this sentence. While it required a special viewing device, this piece of film could be embedded in books, letters, coins, and other inconspicuous items.
They also used a 35mm camera that came concealed inside of a small leather tobacco pouch. It was manufactured in Switzerland, and the film roll was advanced via a small spring-wound mechanism.
The Microdot wasn't the only tiny camera in the CIA's arsenal. They had another subminiature camera, the Dual Use, that was about the size of a film canister. It could photograph documents at close-range, but also buildings and larger objects from a distance—hence the name.
Before satellite imagery matured, what else could intelligence agencies rely on but… pigeons? Yes, the CIA used a camera that was designed to be carried by a pigeon, presumably with the hope that it would fly over a point of interest. The species is so common, and therefore inconspicuous, that it could've provided some useful information.
The best cameras were compact enough to fit in common objects, and what’s more common than a matchbox? Plenty of things, but Eastman Kodak developed a camera that fit inside of one, and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor to the CIA) found it stealthy enough to use during World War II.
KGB: Tricks of the Tradecraft
Small, lightweight F21 cameras were popular among KGB agents in the 1970s. According to the International Spy Museum, this camera's lens was concealed behind a false button on the front of a coat. When the photographer triggered a remote shutter release, the center of the false button would quickly open like a shutter to snap a photo.
Just because something looks like a spy camera—a subminiature body stuffed into an everyday object—doesn't mean that it actually was used by any official spy agency. Models like the Kiev John Player, a tiny camera concealed behind a fake pack of cigarettes, were more likely built as gag gifts for gullible tourists, and passed off as real tools that the KGB used. The John Player was a functioning camera, however, and photographers could toggle the exposed butt to advance the film, and adjust the aperture and shutter speed settings at the bottom of the pack.
Other Spy Cameras
The Steineck ABC Wristwatch Camera was produced in post-war Germany and could produce eight exposures, according to the International Spy Museum. Agents likely used the device for photographing secret meetings or private conversations. Hopefully nobody looked too closely at the face of the watch, though.
The CIA and KGB weren't the only spy agencies using nifty camera gadgets. The East German Stasi was known to use this briefcase camera throughout 1970s and 80s. According to the International Spy Museum, it used infrared film, allowing Stasi operatives to take properly exposed photographs in dimly lit situations.