James Bond's 'Q' Inspires Real-Life Innovators
Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, was born 100 years ago this week. While 007 is adored by millions for his fictional feats of spydom, Bond would be nothing without his enduring and endearing gadget man, Q.
As the Quartermaster himself reminded Bond in the movie License to Kill, "Remember, if it hadn't been for Q Branch, you'd have been dead long ago."
Innovations for the Field
The character Q was based on a real-life engineer named Charles Fraser Smith. Smith worked for the British Government's Ministry of Supply and designed tools for agents during World War II. Today, Q's influence reverberates throughout government agencies in the United States and abroad.
At the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., a nondescript office bears the nameplate "Q." The office belongs to Rolf Dietrich, whose official title is deputy director of research.
"We have our own Bonds in the field," Dietrich says. "My job is to make their job easier and better with new innovations."
About half of his office's research and development budget goes toward technologies that have been specifically requested by field agents. Another portion goes toward what Dietrich calls "really far-out things," such as a technology called "cell-all" that would implant tiny monitors in cell phones. Those monitors could detect radioactive particles or biological weapons.
"Do you need detectors in a stadium when nobody's there? No," Dietrich says, "but when it's packed with people, if cell-all worked, you'd have thousands of detectors there."
Another technology in development would quickly patch a breached levee like those that burst after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. An animated video from DHS shows helicopters dropping an oversized balloon near the levee breach that would then "inflate" with water and plug the hole.
At the CIA, the Office of Technical Services considers itself "America's Q." Robert Wallace, who directed OTS until 2003, says there is a key difference between Q's technologies and those that the CIA relies on.
In the Bond movies, Wallace says, "much of the equipment has an explosive characteristic."
"The world of actual espionage is all about information and communication. James Bond wouldn't last five minutes as an operations officer in the clandestine world," he says.
The line between Bond movies and reality may be blurrier than some film buffs believe. When the first few films hit theaters, Wallace says, the Russian KGB "looked at these as possible indications of what the British service and the Americans had in store for them."
Wallace, co-author of Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA's Spytechs, from Communism to Al-Qaeda, displays some of the Q-style technologies that real-life CIA agents have used in the field. In a briefcase with a hidden pocket, he has items including a freeze-dried dead rat with a hollow abdomen to hide money or information. In the field, the rodent would be covered with Tabasco sauce so stray cats won't carry away the corpse.
He also shows off a hollowed-out Soviet coin, roughly the size of a silver dollar. CIA agents would use the coins to stash secret material, unscrewing them and hiding large quantities of text inside that could be viewed later under a microscope. Other clandestine tools include ball-point pens configured with tiny cameras, and paper that dissolves in water. Agents shred the paper, drop it into a beverage and drink the liquid to make evidence disappear.
Some early spy technologies are ubiquitous in American homes, Wallace says. Baby monitors, for example, evolved from clandestine eavesdropping tools. And, he says, CIA employees spent countless hours in the 1970s developing software that could send the kinds of text messages teenagers now fire off countless times a day.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.