Bond gadgets: fact, fiction, fun

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The girls, you could argue, are just a distraction in James Bond films. The gadgets are the real stars, and time and time again, they save Bond’s skin. Now if you’re the type who can’t help un-suspending your disbelief, then you can’t help wondering just how realistic Bond gadgets are. CIA-types and geeks love to bicker over that one. But the question is really irrelevant, according to Bond techno-watchers. What’s important is that 007’s gadgets have worked at all, helping shape a generation of Baby Boomers who — far from fearing technology, like their parents — embraced gadgetry as a potential electronic panacea for the world’s ills.

There's little to dispute that Bond’s electronic wizardry has had its moments. Both the car phone and the digital watch made their Silver Screen debut thanks to Bond — not to mention the debuts of the combination Rolex watch/saw and the seaworthy Lotus Esprit. Bond films have always tried to be “two minutes ahead of reality,” says John Cork, co-author of “James Bond: the Legacy.”

In fact, Bond was often farther out than that. It’s nearly impossible, for example, with our sophisticated 2002 eyes, to understand how revolutionary was in 1965. Scuba diving is a recreational sport today, but 40 years ago, few had seen images of submarine life. By filming much of “Thunderball” under water in the Bahamas, showing Bond scrambling about in everything from scuba gear to mini-attack submarines, the film quite literally introduced Bond fans to a whole new world. During the next four decades, Bond has regularly used gadgets to take him and his fans to places they had never seen — and he’s inspired many to follow in his footsteps.

“I was mesmerized by ‘Thunderball.’ To see an enormous underwater battle, it was tremendous,” said Chase Brandon, a 30-year CIA veteran who now acts as the agency’s liaison to Hollywood. Brandon is a perfect choice for the job. He does a dead-on voice imitation of Sean Connery; and in his office hang framed LPs that are the soundtracks to Thunderball, and He was a boy when the first Bond films hit, and when the CIA recruited him in college, he didn’t think twice.

“I didn’t really think everybody got an Aston Martin with ejector seats. But I did hope there would be some neat equipment and lovely ladies, and there were,” he said

But Bond’s gadgets didn’t only inspire future secret agents; they inspired scientists, too, says Cork.

“I’m out on this book tour, and I can’t tell you how many engineers have come up to me and said ‘I got interested in engineering because of James Bond.’ ”

The movies don't get it
Well, both future agents and engineers set themselves up for disappointment that way, says spy expert Keith Melton, because real-world spies actually avoid gadgets as best they can. Melton, author of “The Ultimate Spy Book,” claims to have the world’s largest collection of former KGB gadgetry. His cache is on display at both The International Spy Museum in Washington and at the CIA’s spy museum. Melton thinks Bond’s techno-wizardry is pure hogwash.

“The movies just don’t get it,” Melton says. “A spy wants the fewest gadgets possible. Because being caught with a gadget is a death warrant. ... There is no real-world counterpart to a car that shoots with machine guns.” Real spies carry as little technology as possible, and draw as little attention to themselves as possible — hardly 007’s style. “The world of James Bond is fiction. Bond wouldn’t last 4 minutes as a real spy.”

While mini-cameras and small imaging devices for document copying are real-world inventions, most undercover work really is decidedly low-tech, agrees E. Peter Earnest, the Executive director of the International Spy Museum — himself a CIA agent for 36 years. Take the case of FBI turncoat Robert Hanssen.

“What he used was simple technology. He wrapped stuff in plastic bags and hid it under a bridge. That kind of primitive signaling has been used for a couple of thousand years,” he said.

Throwing cold water
Of course the CIA is going to throw cold water on Bond gadgets, says Carl Hindmarch, director of a new a new National Geographic Channel documentary named “Spy Tools.” The film debuts Nov. 24, to coincide with the release of and is hosted by former Bond actor

“If you talk to any intelligence service member, they’re going to downplay all this,” Hindmarch said. “This is basically an industry about keeping secrets.”

But in the documentary, Hindmarch got several former agents to open up about their tricks of the trade, and they are surprisingly Bond-like, he said.

“The briefcase used in is almost an identical copy of equipment that was created for the Second World War,” Hindmarch said. Simple exploding suitcase, or briefcases with hidden compartments, were standard equipment. So were audio and video surveillance equipment that’s in dozens of miniature shapes and flavors in Bond films — not unlike a 1960s CIA experiment which Hindmarch will reveal in his film in which an audio bug was inside a cat, to take advantage of the cat’s superior hearing skills.

But Bond filmmaker Michael Wilson deserves ever more credit than that, Cork says. Not only did Bond movies accurately reflect current spook tech toys; in some cases, the movies have predicted them. Military designers watched Bond films for inspiration, he said, and the films gadgetry helped inspired a prototype called the SmartTruck, a technology-loaded, anti-terrorism personal mover. And the Star Trek-esque cloaking device which will hide Bond’s Aston Martin in “Die Another Day” is based on real LCD panel technology that’s been demonstrated for use in concealed military tanks on the battlefield.

“Michael Wilson likes to understand how it could be real, how it could work,” Cork said. “His modus operandi is to be within the realm of possibility.”

Hard to stay ahead
Bond gadgets generally fall into three categories: miniature surveillance devices, hidden weapons, and “life savers.” While the first two categories seem to have their place in the real world, the third — what some call “Deus ex Machina” gadgets, clearly do not, Earnest said. The phrase means literally “God from a machine,” but it was a device used by Greek playwrights to suddenly resolve plots courtesy of godly intervention. The term now describes any contrived plot resolution.

In other words, CIA agents rarely carry pellets which allow them to breath under water for extended periods, Earnest said.

“So he’s in an impossible, or desperate situation, and suddenly he’s rescued. .. Let’s face it, He’s Superman. And Hollywood films are more and more like giant comic books these days.”

There has always been a pressure to impress audiences, but that was much easier in the 1960s, when few Americans had even imagined communications technologies beyond their telephones. Today’s audiences are much more sophisticated, and require bigger and bigger magic tricks to be impressed, says William S. Hammack, chemical engineering professor at the University of Illinois and a regular commentator on National Public Radio. That’s why Bond plots, and the gadgets, are getting more and more far flung.

“I’m not clear how they are supposed to be ahead of the times any more,” Hammack said. “In the past, they were showing us a new capability. Today, they can show us a phone that’s smaller than mine. Instead of saying here’s a whole new way of doing something, it’s just, ‘Here’s an improvement of what you already can do.’ ”

In that sense, the problem facing Bond filmmakers is similar to the problem faced by software companies, cell phone carriers, and other high-tech firms, who seem to only offer barely noticeable incremental improvements to technologies their consumers already have, rather than radical new products. In this sense, art is imitating life — or at least the Nasdaq.

Also making things hard on Q Branch, Bond’s fictional gadget engineer, is the increasing demands of product placement. The new Bond film will once again feature an Ericsson cell phone, this time a snazzy new model from Sony Ericsson that can take pictures and e-mail them to friends. The $1,000 phone could hardly be considered futuristic, as it will be available to consumers in January. No point in marketing a gadget through a Bond film that won’t be on store shelves for years.

A visual joy ride
All that makes Brandon, the CIA agent, nostalgic for Bond films gone by, when a gun fashioned from a golden cigarette case, a cigarette lighter, a cuff link and a pen was all you need to thrill audiences. Special effects capabilities and commercial pressures have sapped the creative energy out of Bond movies and gadgetry, he said.

“If you don’t have the imagination to take something real and find a compelling, realistic way to show it, you take the easier way around by whomping up some and smoke mirrors, so people can go on visual joy ride,” he said.

“Now, the intent is to not to do something truly realistic, it’s to create something fantastical. .. Over the last decade and a half, the equipment does too much, it’s too beyond realm of believability.”

Particularly the Deus ex Machina gadgetry, Brandon said. In real life — just as in real office cubicles around the world — technology regularly lets spies down.

“Not everybody is equipped with one liners and smooth escapes when the equipment fails, which is most of the time,” Brandon said. “If it’s really imperative that it work smoothly, that’s a guarantee that it won’t ... Murphy’s Law is definitely at play.”

But to Cork, the fact that Bond gadgets work may have been their chief contribution to society. At a time when most science fiction films were dark testaments to the onerous side of technology and science, Bond films showed technology in a fresh, positive light.

“Bond films were the first to embrace technology,” he said. “At the time, there were films like “Metropolis” or “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” the nuclear paranoia films, about how technology torments us.” That same era brought the failure of the Edsel, which showed how ready the public and the press were to taunt clunky technology. ”

“Whatever high tech gadget that was supposed to make your life better, well invariably it failed. ... Bond films started out mocking that. But because (Bond’s) technology actually worked it helped us to the point where we all had cell phones and PDAs.”