What if the majesty of On Her Majesty's Secret Service was Queen Victoria? We might not have had the same type of Cold War gadgetry that made Ian Fleming's novels and the James Bond films, but the 19th century had its own brand of wonderful toys. Here are a handful of gadgets and tools the steampunk spy might want to keep on hand.
Tools for espionage and detection gained some popularity in 19th-century Europe and America. The famed French criminalist Eugène François Vidocq invented many detective tools, including indelible ink and ballistics testing, and was known for using disguises and surveillance in his investigations. His methods inspired many aspiring detectives, including Allan Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The American Civil War was also a high time for espionage, with both sides employing whatever tools they could think of to gather and pass along intelligence undetected. On top of that, the later Victorian Era came with a number of clever gadgets and self-defense tools. While some of them never quite caught on, others were forerunners for devices we still use today.
Many of these items come from the collection of Maurice Collins. You can see more of his odd devices from the 19th century and early 20th century at Victorian Gadgets.
Camera Pocket Watch: This early hidden camera was patented by the Lancaster Watch Camera in 1886. You could conveniently slip it in your purse or pocket and no one would be the wiser. This particular model wasn't terribly practical, however. For each exposure, you had to release four very small catches to release the glass screen and fit a separate metal sensitised material holder, making it a bit indiscreet when you wanted to actually take photos. Still, it was handy if you wanted to smuggle a camera somewhere. [Watchismo]
Gadget Cane: By the early 19th century, inventors were coming up with all manner of innovative canes. Hollow canes could be used for hiding messages, but more complex canes could also serve the spy on the go. This particular cane could be unscrewed to reveal a spyglass, and a gun could be pulled from the top and quickly fired. If you're in the market for something simpler, you could opt for a plain old pin gun cane.
Cipher Disk: Mathematician Charles Babbage would make great contributions to the field of cryptography, emphasizing the use of maths to crack codes. But if you were working with the popular Vigenère cipher, your agents would need a device like this Confederate States of America cipher disk to read your encoded messages.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Ring Gun: This 19th century French ring concealed a tiny gun capable of firing six 5mm bullets. Its name, quite appropriately, was "Le Petit
e Protector." For this trigger finger to work, though, you'd have to be the sort of person who could discreetly pull off a good-sized ring. [International Spy Museum]
Burglar Alarm: To ensure that rival spies weren't sneaking into your bedroom at night, you could place this device by the door with the spike up. If someone opened the door, the door would push the spike into the wedge, setting off a rather loud alarm bell. Of course, if you really were James Bond, you might be spoiling a sexy surprise. [Victorian Gadgets]
Wristwatch GPS: Because this is item is part of the collection of Maurice Collins, who collects many Victorian Era gadgets, it tends to be labeled Victorian, although it's actually from the 1920s. Still, a steampunk spy might have found this device quite handy. Simply load a scroll with the appropriate map or blueprint on your wrist and wind it up or down as you walk. [Metro]
Pistol Purse: This one is probably more an item for the steampunk Bond girl than James Bond, but this ladies' purse held a deadly secret. In normal daily use, this purse looks like any other, but a secret compartment revealed a tiny pistol. You'd only draw it when you really needed it, though; the gun held a single bullet. [Daily Mail]
Artificial Ear Drum: Joseph Toynbee invented the artificial ear drum in 1852 to combat hearing loss, but it could be used to enhance an eavesdropper's hearing. The ear drum consisted of vulcanized rubber attached to a rod, and Victorians were pros at keeping the devices hidden in hats and tiaras. [Medical Discoveries]
Cigarettes: In Doctor No, the chauffeur Mr. James manages to kill himself with a cyanide cigarette. As it turns out, ordinary cigarettes prescribed to asthmatics during the Victorian Era often contained toxic levels of arsenic, which could be fatal if eaten. Cigarettes could be a convenient way to transport your poison. Smoking them wouldn't be enough to kill your target (or yourself) however, unless you were planning for an extremely slow death.
And Dr. No might have opted for a Victorian gadget of his own: this rather ornate prosthetic arm. [London Science Museum]
What other gadgets would you use to outfit a steampunk super spy?