Sunday, May 18, 2014

Spies, Gadgets, and Great Reads

Spies and their gadgets are like televisions and their remotes.  They just go together, enhancing the job or the experience, as the case may be.

Unlike television though, spies have been a part of our cultural and historical lives as far back as the Bible and probably farther back than that. James Bond, of course, is the iconic spy with Q supplying him endlessly with state-of-the-art gadgets to help him save the free world from dastardly masterminds. But, there are some incredible stories, books, and museums - filled with mind boggling spy stories and paraphernalia. This post only begins to take a look...

Early Spy Gadgets:
  •  The ancient Spartans, around 500 B.C.E.  used cylindrical wood cyphers called scytales to transport hidden messages. Scytales (or skytales as some write it) were long, slender long hexagonal walking sticks wrapped with a thin strip of papyrus, leather, or parchment. A message was written on the wrapping, and then the strip was unwound and passed on to a messenger (who often wore it as a belt). Only when it was rewound around a rod of the same diameter could the original message be deciphered.
  • In the late 15th century, Italian painter and polymath Leon Battista Alberti invented one of the first known mechanical devices for encoding messages. His  cipher wheel was composed of two copper disks, one slightly smaller than the other, with the letters of the alphabet etched along their edges in random order. The smaller disk was overlaid on top of the larger disk, and the two were rotated until a particular letter on one disk lined up with a different letter on the other. Messages could then be written and decoded with ease by simply substituting the appropriate letter on the other disk.
  •  Based on Alberti's cipher wheel, the cipher Disk was used in the Civil War (as seen in the image below).  The image here shows a cipher disk used by the Confederate army. The inner wheel would be rotated to displace letters with agents at both ends knowing how and where to align both wheels to encode and decode the messages.

  • Ring Gun - a small "pistol" concealed in a ring.  It held six 5 millimeter bullets and is from France, 19th century.  It was nicknamed "Le Petite Protector" (translation: the small protector).
Gun Ring
In World War I intelligence agencies actually rigged pigeons with cameras to capture troop movements. Here's an image of the bird and its contraption from The International Spy Museum, Washington, D.C.

Image from:

Some effective World War II spy gadgets:
'pipe' pistol
  •  Pipe Pistols - only a few prototypes were made, but spies could smoke their stash even when it was a loaded .22 caliber pistol with  bullets  loaded in its stem.
  • Rodent Bombs - were dead rats filled with explosives. These rats were placed in factories near enemy camps and bases.  Once found, camp workers would throw them into fires (with the hope of destroying any disease they might be carrying) where they would then explode.
  • Biscuit Tin Radios - inconspicuous radios would be hidden inside 2-pound Huntley & Palmer biscuit tins and sent to underground agents in France.
  • Bicycle Chargers - were ingeniously hooked up to generators in the French resistance. When pedaled, the generators created and stored electricity.
  • Spike Letter Boxes - were used to conceal secret messages which would be rolled up and hidden in their hollow stems.  The spikes were then placed inconspicuously into a fence.
  • To hide their footprint identity, SOE agents were given overshoes - rubber boot casings to put over their shoes. They were shaped like feet to make it look like barefoot locals had just come through.
  • Enigma Cipher Machines - were used by the Germans. The machines - which looked like typewriters had keyboards linked to rotors that would encode messages so that when intercepted would make no sense, unless you had the cipher books (which were routinely changed).
  • Magician Jasper Maskelyne in 1943 gave Captain David Smiley (British spy) magnetic items which made buttons, pencils, paper clips and fly buttons work as compasses.
  • Watering Cans with hidden cameras were used by the Germans. They would hide a Robot Star camera under the watering can's lid which was very hard to see. And, because the watering cans were portable the cameras could be carried undetected. Cameras were also placed in ties, coats.
Spy Gadgets from the Cold War:
  • Lipstick Pistol - a 4.5 millimeter single-shot weapon. It was taken from a KGB agent in the mid 1960's (and can be found at The International Spy Museum, Washington, D.C.)
  • Coat Camera - a little Model F-21 issued by the KGB around 1970 was concealed in a buttonhole. The release was in the wearer's jacket. They just squeezed the shutter cable and the fake button opened to take the picture.
  • Microdot photography -was developed in the 1960's. Images of documents could be taken with tiny cameras and then reduced to the size of a dot with a special chemical process.
  • Shoe Transmitters - While Maxwell Smart (Agent 86) had a shoe phone in "Get Smart"television series.  Real agents used shoe transmitters to transit messages throughout the 1960's and 1970's.


Whether you visit the spy museums or just really like spies and their stories, below is some recommended reading to fuel your kid's passion and interest.

Fiction and Non-Fiction Spy (Prose and Graphic Novel) Stories for Kids:
  • David Adler. Cam Jansen Series New York: Penguin Young Readers
  • Thomas B. Allen. George Washington, Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War.  Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2007
  • Thomas B. Allen. Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent: How Daring Slaves and Free Blacks Spied for the Union during the Civil War. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2006
  • Robert Baden-Powell. My Adventures as a Spy. Minneola, NY: Dover Publications, 2011
  • Gary L. Blackwood Mysterious Messages: A History of Codes and Ciphers. New York, NY: Dutton Children's Books, 2009
  • Rick Bowers. Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network That Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2010.
  • Ally Carter. Gallagher Girls Series (ex. I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You). New York. Macmillan Books
  • Erskine Childers. The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service. New York: Penguin, 2011
  • Anthony Coffey and Jesse Labbe. Berona's War I: Field Guide and  Berona's War II: Fight for Amity. Boom! Archaia Imprints
  • Danielle Denega. The Cold War Pigeon Patrols and Other Animal Spies. New York NY: Franklin Watts, 2008
  • Franklin Dixon. The Hardy Boys, Undercover Brothers. New York: Aladdin, 2011
  • Louise Fitzhugh. Harriet the Spy. New York: Harper & Row, 1964
  • Ian Flemming. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Puffin Books, 2007
  • Jo Foster. The History Spies: Back to the Blitz; Search for the Sphinx; The Great Exhibition Mission. Macmillan Children's Books
  • Stuart Gibbs. Spy School. New York: Simon & Schuster for Young Readers, 2012.
  • T.M. Goeglein. Cold Fury. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2012.
  • Anthony Horowitz. Alex Rider Books.
  • Gail Jarrow. Lincoln's Flying Spies: Thaddeus Lowe and the Civil War Balloon Corps. Honesdale, PA: Calkins Creek, 2010.
  • Carolyn Keene. Nancy Drew Books (Mystery at Malachite Mansion; The Secret of the Old Clock) New York: Grosset & Dunlap
  • Susan Kim & Laurence Klavan, art by  Pascal Dizin. City of Spies. New York: First Second, 2010
  • Bart King. The Big Book of Spy Stuff. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith 2011.
  • Barbara Lehman. The Secret Box. Boston: Houghton Mifflin for Children, 2011.
  • Kate McMullan. The Story of Harriet Tubman: Conductor of the Underground Railroad. New York: Dell Publications, 1991.
  • Eoin McNamee. The Ring of Five. New York: Wendy Lamb, 2010.
  • Katherine Noll. The Secret Agent Handbook. New York: Grossett & Dunlap/Penguin Group, 2009.
  • Emmuska Baroness Orczy. The Scarlet Pimpernel.  Dover Publications, 2002 (Originally published in the UK, Hutchinson, 1905)
  • Don Rauf. Killer Lipstick and Other Spy Gadgets. New York: Franklin Watts, 2008.
  • Ron Roy. Capital Mysteries Series. New York: Random House
  • Mark Walden. H.I.V.E. (Higher Institute of Villainous Education) Series. Bloomsbury Publishing.
For an outstanding list of books about spies from all ages, please see

Best Spy Movies of All Time (as recommended by The International Spy Museum):
#12 The Good Shepherd
#11 Valkyrie
#10 Red   
#9 From Russia with Love
#7 North by Northwest
#6 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
#4 The Hunt for the Red October
#3 The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
#2 Spies Like Us
#1 The Bourne Identity
Although, not included here, a few of my old-time favorites are:
  • "The Man With the One Red Shoe" starring (a young) Tom Hanks, Carrie Fisher, James Belushi, Lori Singer, and Dabney Coleman directed by Stan Dragoti (a remake of a 1972 film "Le Grand Blond avec une Chaussure Noire"; 
  • "Hopscotch" starring Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty and Herbert Lom, directed by Ronald Neame;
  • "Charade" starring Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant (a real spy), Walter Matthau, and James Coburn, directed by Stanley Donen; and
  • "True Lies" starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold, Bill Paxton, and Charlton Heston, and directed by James Cameron;

What do you think? Feel free to leave you favorite picks in the comments below.

Ten Best Non-fiction Spy Books  (recommended by Peter Earnest of The International Spy Museum):

What do you think? And what are your favorite spy stories? Please leave you favorite picks in the comments below.

Whether fact or fiction, reading and learning about spies and their gadgets is an outstanding way to introduce history, science, and technology, and literature to your kids.  If you chose this route, here are some additional resources for integrating these fantastic stories into content-area classrooms:
Before closing, I'd like to share one more spy item with you - an infographic on spies and their gadgets found at It is presented by Turn AMC.


That's about it for this week. 
Thanks, as always for your visit.  Please leave YOUR favorite spy gadgets, books, and/or movies in the comments below.


  1. What a fun post. You reminded me of a movie I need to watch again...The man with one red shoe

  2. Very cool. Lot;s of great info, and many things I had never heard of before.
    An Arkie's Musings

  3. All is very fascinating, I love spy stuff and yet I have never really owned any spy things.
    Have a super cool rest of the week.

  4. SALT? Really on the list? I saw it because it was filmed partly in Albany, but...
    Anyway, very thorough, per usual.

  5. Interesting information! Have a terrific day.

  6. Absolutely fascinating.
    Oh the secrets in plain sight.
    Thank you for the list of books. I'm going to have to look some of them up.

  7. Robert Muchamore has written a series of books for youth called "Cherub" series, the first called "The Recruit." Amazing collection to encourage boys especially to read. The series is based on fact during WW2 in England when young kids were employed as spies because no one would suspect them. You might like to check these books out to see if you want to add them to your list.

    abcw team

  8. I'm a big kid and I love spy gadgets, movies and stuff. Thanks for your post. I learned about old spy gadgets.

  9. I could use some of them for Neighbor watch, lol !
    ABC Wednesday Team

  10. This is such a good post! I love all these spy things, they`re so interesting!

  11. Thank you Meryl, for this most informative and interesting post! I love spy movies and books. How inventive people were as early as 500BC.
    Have a great week.
    Wil, ABCW Team.