In pop culture these days, we only hear about spies if they’re starring in a movie, or if their leader is sleeping with his biographer. Which is maybe not surprising, given the sensitive nature of the job—but still, whence comes the fake-mustache-and-secret-recorder spy culture of yore?
Thanks largely to the ubiquity of digital devices, those classic, Bond-style gadgets we associate with spies have long been outmoded. But some of the most amazing can be seen this fall at Discovery Times Square (I guess that’s a thing?), where a show called Spy: The Secret World of Espionage is on view until next spring.
In trying to describe some of the objects on view in Spy, It’s tempting to play a game of "real spy gadget or made-up joke." For example, the keystone of the exhibit is a robot fish named "Charlie," built to swim in a fairly realistic impersonation of a live catfish. Amazingly, Charlie is only 12 years old—the CIA won’t reveal why he was built, but some speculate he’s intended to collect water samples around nuclear power plants and factories. Salon has already christened him with a nickname: James Pond.
Other objects in Spy hearken from World War II, like a code-making machine that encrypted Allied messages. There are plenty of secret disguise aids, like a reversible cape, and recording devices abound, from the shoe-borne variety to a super-sensitive recorder, developed by Swiss scientists, that can be worn under your clothes. The show is surprisingly topical, including several fairly recent objet d’espionnage, such as the ice pick that is said to have served as a murder weapon for Trosky in Mexico, in the 1940s, and a Chanel purse belonging to "sexy spy" Anna Chapman, who was arrested in the U.S. and returned to Russia just a few years ago.
Amidst the clutter of outmoded gadgets, what comes through clearly is the sense that information was a precious physical commodity up until a decade ago or so. Today, we walk around with whole gigabytes of data on our person—but for decades, transporting a piece of text or audio was a matter of life and death. Go check out Spy until March of next year.