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Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Spy Gadgets and Gizmos of the 19th Century

Spy Gadgets and Gizmos of the 19th Century
C.A. Asbrey

Gun and Sword Canes

 The 19th century was a time of great innovation and invention, but society also had an eye  to the past. They used very ancient methods and mixed them with the new, the novel, and the downright devious

In The Innocents Mysteries, I identify a number of ways in which criminals and detectives raced to beat one another.  Some of the techniques were used right through to active service in WW2. After all, if something isn't broken, why fix it?
Spy Camera
  1. Spy cameras – think that these were impossible in the days of long exposures? Think again. The invention of Gelatine dry plates in the late 1870s made shorter exposures practical for the first time. In 2007 a spy camera hidden in a watch sold for £21,600. We have no record of the oldest version in existence, but we can be sure that this example, made by Lancaster & Co in Birmingham, was not the first. Small hand-held cameras were in use from the 1850s, and then they started to be concealed in hats, clothing and bags. By the 1880s fully commercial versions were being openly demonstrated and sold as novelties. The one sold in 2007 was made for a woman.
They took pretty good photographs too. In the 1890s a very shy young man used one to take pictures of people he greeted on the street. Carl Størmer later found renown as a mathematician, but thank to his work we actually have some copies of pictures taken by a spy camera and the result is surprisingly good.

 He had started by trying to get a picture of a young woman he was infatuated with, but was too shy to approach. The affair came to nothing, but his interest in photography grew. He amassed  a collection of over 500 photographs, and they are remarkably candid when compared to the studio portraits from the period which we are more used to seeing.

2. Gadget canes – We’ve all seen the swords hidden inside canes, but the Victorians loved hiding all kinds of things in them. How many people thought to search an innocuous walking stick when they captured someone? They were commonplace in the 19th century, and were used to add a certain swagger to an outfit. They were not just a means of addressing problems with balance.  We still see telescopes and flasks in canes, but the Victorians took the gadget cane to whole new levels.  Of course there were telescopes, listening devices, keys to ciphers, maps made of silk which could occupy a tiny space and even bottles for poisons. Cane guns were invented very early in the 1800s. Speaking of poisons, there were even poisoned cigarettes which would kill when eaten to evade interrogation or torture.
Gadget canes
3. Listening device – Joseph Toynbee invented the artificial eardrum as a hearing aid in 1852. It didn’t take long before more devious minds saw another use for the vulcanised rubber disc which amplified sound through a rod. They used them for listening through walls or from a nearby table. The Victorians tendency to try to make disability less visible also meant that they came hidden in hats, elaborate hairdos, and even tiaras. Very handy for a spy.

How effective they were isn't recorded, but they kept using them until more modern versions were invented to they must have been some use.

4. Invisible inks/hidden messages – Invisible inks are the stuff of legend and date back to at least 600 BC. There are records of fruit based invisible inks being used in the Middle East and China They are either organic or synthetic in composition. Many things have been used from plant sap, lemon juice, milk, onion juice, urine and even sperm - handy for the male spy. They are developed either by a chemical or by a process like heat, which acts on the ink at a different rate to the paper or fabric the writing was on. Acids, alkalis, heat, or light were all the reagents used
One very old method, which dates from, at least, Elizabethan times, was still in use during WW2. A mixture of alum and vinegar was used to write a message on a boiled egg, which is not visible on the shell once dry. These eggs could then be transported amongst raw eggs. Once peeled the writing was visible in the stained alum inside the egg. You can easily tell a boiled egg from a raw one by spinning it on a hard surface.

5. Ciphers and codes – are as old as writing. Any message could be intercepted. Pigeons could be shot down, messengers captured, and letters stolen. There are many different kinds, and too complex to squeeze into a mere paragraph, but in the 19th century two main kinds were popular. Playfair Cipher is created by generating a random short phrase, and then constructing a 5 by 5 grid of letters. That grid is the required to decode the message. As the alphabet had 26 letters and the code 25, ‘I’ and ‘J’ are interchangeable.
The other is One Time Pad. That is a symmetric encryption system using keys that are changed with every single message. The code takes its name from the fact that the keys were originally written on pads of paper and the name One Time Pad stuck. It requires both the sender and recipient to have the same key. It is best for short messages ads the more the code is repeated the more elements there are which can be used to crack it.
Cipher disk
Cipher discs were invented in 1470 by Leon Battista, and were a means of creating and deciphering a code. The code can be a consistent monoalphabetic substitution for the entire cipher or the disks can be moved periodically making it polyalphabetic.

6. Wire tapping – Crippen is often cited as the first murderer caught by telegraph, but in 1845 John Tawell was apprehended fleeing from Slough. Tawell had been trained as a chemist, and had previously been transported to Australia for the crime of forgery. His religiosity was the only factor which saved him from hanging at that time. His then wife went with him. It's unclear whether or not she died in Australia or England. Nonetheless, he set up home again and reclaimed a reputation and status of the devout and upright Quaker in Berkhamsted. They rejected him, but he dressed the part anyway. Sarah Hart was a servant at the Tawell house and became pregnant. She didn't get an offer of marriage, but she did gain an allowance to pay for the child. Tawell then married a Sarah Cutworth and visited covertly. All went well until Sarah Hart made their ‘arrangement’ official by taking out a court order for maintenance for her and the children, This meant his dirty secret was open to discovery. He would have to do something about this risk, and he did.
He poisoned his mistress with prussic acid to avoid paying child support and to dispose of the problem woman. Before the advent of Morse Code, the system used by telegraphers didn’t have a ‘Q’. Once the police worked out that the message told them that the man ‘dressed as a kwaker’, was, in fact, a ‘Quaker’, they apprehended the man dressed in the full-length black coat who had been travelling in the end carriage as described to them. The case helped the telegraph system to spread, citing public safety and speed of communication. By 1870 it was possible for London to communicate with Bombay in minutes.
However, people have been tapping into wires for as long as they have been used for communication. In the telegraph system it was stupidly simple. It was basically a huge circuit, so could be accessed by attaching a wire and listening in to clicks which passed along it. Wire tapping was routinely used by both sides in the American Civil War, criminals used it to listen to plans to transport valuables, and businesses used it to keep up with rivals. It didn’t stop there either. It was also used to spy on gangs during the prohibition, and even on Civil Rights leaders in the 1960’s.

Innocent Bystander EXCERPT

A vacant-looking man with prominent yellow teeth walked into her field of vision, striding beyond the blinding sun and dragged her roughly from the horse. She had expected to be searched and had ruthlessly bound her body with bandages to try to flatten and conceal her breasts, but the man merely patted down her sides before turning his attentions to her jacket. He pulled out the pistol which had been loosely placed in her pocket and slapped his way down her legs. She was instantly glad she had foregone the Derringer she usually wore at her ankle. A concealed weapon was too risky.
“He’s clean.”
“Well, boy. It seems like you’re gonna get your wish, but if you’ve been messin’ with us and you ain’t Quinn’s kin, you’re gonna regret it. He don’t like to be messed with.”
Abigail felt her arms grabbed as she was roughly turned around and her carefully dirtied hands were bound behind her back, the rope biting deeply into her skin as it was pulled tight. They must have seen her wince as it provoked a chorus of laughter which rang in her ears.
“Looks like this life’s a bit too rough for you, sonny.”
 A thick, smelly bag was thrust over her head, obliterating the world, before she was lifted back onto her little colt and she felt herself led off to face the rest of the gang.



  1. WOW! All I can say is wow, Christine. This was a fascinating read and I can see why you love writing mysteries with all these great inventions to be used in your stories. I had no idea cameras were that small that they could be hand-held. All I've ever seen is the big tripod type of camera and the photographer ducking under a tarp to take the picture and everyone had to stand absolutely still. No wonder so many of those sepia portraits had people looking so grim and stiff....they were told to be still and hold their breath lol. I always enjoy reading your posts and look forward to the nest one. This one's a definite keeper to add to my research files.

    1. Thank you! Feel free to use my blog anytime. I have to say the short exposure time on these cameras was a surprise to me too. We often forget how fast technology moved in the 19th century. They saw themselves as a thrusting and modern culture - which is odd considering Victorian is often a byword for staid.

  2. Terrific information! Thanks, Christine and PRP for posting!

  3. Chistine, this was such a fascinating article. I never knew about the technology that went into the pocket watch camera until now. I would never have imagined such genius took place so early on. It was like a blast of 007 from way back when.
    The Innocent Bystander is a captivating story.
    I wish you all the very best, Christine.

    1. Thank you. More 'technology' comes in the next half of the series. Some of it is even inspired by the Middle Ages.

  4. What great info. I had no idea some of these techniques were so old.

    1. Thanks. Yes. The Victorians were truly ingenious.Some of them even surprised me.