Real Spy Gear From America’s First Intelligence Agency

Written by Administrator. Posted in Security Tips

When we think of “Real Spy Gear” we think of advanced espionage equipment used by the CIA and other agencies, but just because a spy gadget is “out of date” does not mean it isn’t real.  In fact some of the older surveillance equipment and spy gadgets from WWII and the cold war, are also some of the coolest.

The first intelligence agency in the USA was the OSS, or Office of Strategic Services. OSS activities created an ongoing demand for spying devices and surveillance equipment that could be used to trick, attack, or demoralize the enemy. Finding few agencies or corporations willing to undertake this sort of low-volume, highly specialized work, Franklin D Roosevelt recruited General Donovan (The Father of American Intelligence) to fabricate the tools that OSS needed for its clandestine missions (Similar to the British MI6). By the end of the war, OSS engineers and technicians had formed a collection of labs, workshops, and experts that occasionally gave OSS a technological edge over its Axis foes.

beano grenade and uniform button with hidden compass

The “Beano” grenade exploded on impact while the uniform button concealed a hidden compass

The Special Operations and Secret Intelligence Branches frequently called on the technical prowess assembled in the Research & Development Branch (R&D) and related offices. R&D proved adept at inventing weapons and James Bond type spy gadgets and in adapting Allied equipment to new missions. General Donovan hired Boston chemist and executive Stanley P. Lovell to be his “Professor Moriarty” in charge of R&D. The Division’s products ranged from silenced pistols to limpet mines to “Aunt Jemima,” an allegedly explosive powder packaged in Chinese flour bags. Tiny cameras and inconspicuous letter-drops were devised to assist OSS agents in enemy territory. A companion unit, located in the Communications Branch but also confusingly titled the Research and Development Division, developed wiretap devices, electronic beacons for agents in the field, and excellent portable radios (particularly the “Joan-Eleanor” system, which allowed an agent to converse securely with an aircraft circling high overhead).

Liberator pistol and Caltrops

The “Liberator Pistol” was very easy to conceal, while the Caltrops were designed to puncture tires.


R&D’s components also fabricated the myriad papers that an agent needed to create a plausible identity behind enemy lines. The latest German and Japanese-issued ration cards, work passes, identification cards, and even occupation currency all had to be secretly acquired, perfectly imitated, and securely passed to operatives preparing for missions that could end in sudden death if any part of their cover stories went awry. An agent’s appearance had to be just as carefully prepared. In the words of the OSS official history:

            …each agent had to be equipped with clothing sewn exactly as it would have been sewn if it were made in the local area for which he was destined; his eyeglasses, dental work, toothbrush, razor, brief case, travelling bag, shoes, and every item of wearing apparel had to be microscopically accurate.

The growing number of OSS coastal infiltration and sabotage projects eventually gave rise to an independent branch, the Maritime Unit, to develop specialized boats, equipment, and explosives. The Unit fashioned underwater breathing gear, waterproof watches and compasses, an inflatable motorized surfboard, and a two-man kayak that proved so promising that 275 were ordered by the British.

Spy Playing Cards with hidden map

A deck of playing cards conceal
a map which would be revealed when the top layer was soaked off.

Some OSS schemes had a Rube Goldberg feel about them that seems almost comical today. Project CAMPBELL, for instance, was a remote-controlled speedboat, disguised as a local fishing craft and guided by aircraft, that would detonate against an anchored Japanese ship. The prototype sank a derelict freighter in trials, but the US Navy had no way of getting close enough to a Japanese harbor to launch CAMPBELL, and declined to develop the weapon. R&D built plenty of devices of its own that looked good on paper but either failed in tests or proved too impractical for combat use. But America was locked in a war for its very survival, and R&D chief Stanley Lovell felt that no idea could be overlooked: “It was my policy to consider any method whatever that might aid the war, however unorthodox or untried.” Failures were accepted as a cost of doing business.

16mm  Kodak camera in the shape of a matchbox and acetone time delay fuses

Acetone Time Delay Fuses for limpet mines to be used against ships.
A 16mm Kodak camera in the shape of a matchbox.


For More information on weapons and spy gear see the original publication in the library section of the Central Intelligence Agency’s website.


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