While the SR-71 Blackbird evokes images of gallant pilots silently cruising through jet-black nights, they are not the only successful practitioners of aerial espionage. Camera toting homing pigeons have been a spy’s best friend since the earliest days of espionage. Distinguished by their speed and ability to return home in any weather, pigeons carried tiny cameras high above enemy lines. As the birds flew, the cameras continuously clicked away, snapping pictures to be developed and interpreted when the pigeons reached their destination.
Of the hundreds of thousands of pigeons sent through enemy fire, 95% completed their missions.
Learn more about these tiny, yet highly successful agents at The International Spy Museum, which features the largest permanent collection of international spy-related artifacts on public display. The museum blends intriguing, interactive displays with a unique and entertaining approach to storytelling.
For a nation that grew up watching movie and television spy thrillers, the connection between Hollywood and espionage is inescapable. The CIA and FBI have employed Hollywood make-up artists as disguise experts and real-life spy tools first showed up in a screenplay or on a prop designer’s drawing board. One Bond car, a 1964 Aston Martin, served as inspiration for real life high-tech gadgetry used in treacherous field operations.
The 1960’s KGB issued shoe with heel transmitter used to monitor secret conversations is a perfect example. A transmitter, microphone and batteries were imbedded in the heel of a target’s shoe. Someone close to the target (usually a maid or valet with access to the individual’s clothing) would lay out the rigged shoes for the target and pull a white pin from the heel to activate the transmitter. The target would then become a walking radio station, transmitting all conversations to a nearby monitoring post.
This item, used in real life, looks suspiciously like the infamous shoe phone worn by comic-spy Maxwell Smart.
You can even see if you have what it takes to become an intelligence agent by adopting a Cover identity designed to help you complete your mission at the International Spy Museum. New identities, supplied in the “Covers & Legends” room, provide background information regarding your new name, gender, age, country of residence, occupation, destination, reason for visit, and planned length of stay. Those facts will be necessary if you want to safely pass through the digital border guards.
Also onsite is one of the most interesting Museum shops I have ever visited. They have everything from night scopes and watch cameras to decoder necklace party favors.
International Spy Museum
800 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20004
(202)EYE.SPY.U or 202.393.7798
Portions of this story were published in 2005 in the News Journal under the byline of Gail A. Sisolak.