The Birth of Spy Tech: From the ‘Detectifone’ to a Bugged Martini

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The urge to snoop is as old as time—and by the 1950s, the electronic listening invasion had begun.


This is excerpted from The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States by Brian Hochman published by Harvard University Press.

EAVESDROPPING TECHNOLOGIES OF various sorts have been around for centuries. Prior to the invention of recorded sound, the vast majority of listening devices were extensions of the built environment. Perhaps nodding to the origins of the practice (listening under the eaves of someone else’s home, where rain drops from the roof to the ground), early modern architects designed buildings with structural features that amplified private speech. The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher devised cone-shaped ventilation ducts for palaces and courts that allowed the curious to overhear conversations. Catherine de’ Medici is said to have installed similar structures in the Louvre to keep tabs on individuals who might have plotted against her. Architectural listening systems weren’t always a product of intentional design. Domes in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and the US Capitol building are inadvertent “whispering galleries” that enable people to hear conversations held on the other side of the room. Archaeologists have discovered acoustical arrangements like these dating back to 3000 BC. Many were used for eavesdropping.

The earliest electronic eavesdropping technologies functioned much like architectural listening systems. When installed in fixed locations—under floorboards and rugs, on walls and windows, inside desks and bookcases—devices like the Detectifone, a technological cousin to the more common Dictaphone, proved predictably effective. According to a promotional pamphlet published in 1917, the Detectifone was “a super-sensitive device for collecting sound in any given place and transmitting it by a wire thru any given distance to the receiving end, at which point the person or persons listening are able to hear all that is said at the other end … It hears everything, the slightest sound or whisper … The result is the same as though you were present in the room where the conversation was being carried on.” 

Such devices were typically marketed as investigative tools for private detectives and law enforcement agencies. But manufacturers also envisioned more pedestrian uses for the technology: verifying the loyalty of business associates, corroborating statements made under oath, even monitoring patients in hospitals and insane asylums.

The devices that we now think of as “bugs” emerged much later. (In fact, the word bug didn’t gain traction as a nickname for a concealed eavesdropping device until after World War II.) During the late 1940s, electronic innovations made it possible for eavesdroppers to miniaturize listening technologies like the Detectifone. This made them easier to hide. It also freed them from the strictures of the built environment, dramatically expanding their reach. 

Reports of an American bugging epidemic began circulating in the early 1950s—first, as glimpses of the man-made miracle of electronic miniaturization began to appear in newspaper exposés, trade magazines, and Hollywood films, and later as congressional subcommittees revealed scandalous eavesdropping tools on the floor of the US Senate. The numbers were impossible to substantiate, but by 1960 all accounts suggested that the bug had outstripped the wiretap as the professional eavesdropper’s weapon of choice. The electronic listening invasion had begun.

THE MIDDLE SECTION of The Eavesdroppers, a 1959 book by the University of Pennsylvania engineer Richard Schwartz, was intended to account for this new development in the world of electronic surveillance. Brusquely titled “Eavesdropping: The Tools,” Schwartz’s chapter took stock of the miniaturized listening devices that professionals were using in the field. In the process, he told a more disconcerting story about ordinary technologies turned against the society that had created them. There were induction coils that allowed eavesdroppers to listen to telephone conversations without making physical contact with telephone wires. A special brand of conductive paint, invisible to the unaided eye, could redirect phone signals to outside lines. There was a new class of microphones engineered to be smaller than sugar cubes and thinner than postage stamps. These could be secreted away in surprising locations: wall sockets, picture frames, packs of cigarettes. They transformed everyday items into covert listening machines.

Then there were the technologies of remote listening, futuristic gadgets that seemed to defy the laws of physics. Tiny radio transmitters embedded in briefcases or wristwatches could broadcast conversations to eavesdroppers lying in wait elsewhere. Directional microphones shaped like satellite dishes and shotguns could intercept conversations from thousands of yards away. Schwartz even reported on the development of an eavesdropping laser beam, long rumored to be on the open market. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on how you looked at the situation—this was the only device he discovered to be apocryphal.

The Supreme Court’s earliest rulings on electronic eavesdropping—Goldman, Irvine, and Silverman—also happened to coincide with a flurry of technical innovations in the electronics industry. The ambiguity of the law made state and federal officials much less equipped to keep pace with the developments that ensued.

Behind the rapid advances in electronic eavesdropping was a single technological innovation: the transistor. Pioneered by researchers at Bell Laboratories in the late 1940s, transistors provided the means to make electronic components smaller, enabling the development of a host of technological devices that helped to reshape postwar American society: the calculator, the portable radio, the hearing aid, and—perhaps most importantly—the integrated circuit and the personal computer. Scholars typically identify the transistor as the breakthrough that made the “information age” possible. But there was an ominous side to the technology, often overlooked in historical accounts of its social applications. Transistors were easy to construct, and by the late 1950s they were cheap and easy to acquire. When electrical engineers and surveillance experts realized their potential, they ushered in what Harold Lipset later remembered as a period of “extreme miniaturization” in the field.

In The Eavesdroppers, Schwartz reported that transistorizing a bug halved its size without changing its overall manufacturing cost. The resulting eavesdropping devices, some no bigger than the head of a matchstick, seemed nothing short of miraculous: bugged television sets, staplers, doorbells, and flower arrangements; bugged shirt buttons, tie clips, hat bands, and lighters; even bugged lipstick tubes and cavity fillings. As Alan Westin explained, these weren’t “‘Buck Rogers’ developments, technically possible but still on the drawing boards.” They were “already in use, and spreading across the nation with cancerous speed.”

All told, the combination of rapid technological innovation and crawling legal control yielded a situation that one federal official described as “total anarchy.” Following Dash and Schwartz’s lead, lawmakers in Washington soon turned their attention to the bugging epidemic. The congressional hearings that ensued, led by Edward V. Long and the Senate Subcommittee on Administrative Practice and Procedure, mostly served to expand on the territory that The Eavesdroppers had already covered. But disturbing new details about the pervasiveness of electronic eavesdropping came to light—at first in pieces, and then seemingly all at once. In 1960, the US ambassador to the United Nations disclosed that a listening device had been lodged inside the state seal of the American embassy in Moscow for the better part of a decade.

News reports suggested that as many as one out of three divorce cases in major American cities involved a conversation intercepted by a hidden microphone, and as many as one out of five businesses had purchased top-of-the-line audio surveil- lance equipment to spy on competitors. A torrent of books and articles on the electronic eavesdropping crisis appeared, some written by former professionals in the field. The titles suggested that the nation had at long last reached a point of no return: “Bug Thy Neighbor” (1964), The Privacy Invaders (1964), The Naked Society (1964), “The Big Snoop” (1966), The Intruders (1966), The Electronic Invasion (1967), The Ominous Ear (1968), The Third Listener (1969). And in the midst of the mounting anxiety, a private detective with a flair for the dramatic appeared before Congress and pretended to sip a dry martini throughout his testimony. The olive in his glass contained a listening device, designed to record conversations at a range of up to 40 feet. At the end of the proceedings, he played back his opening statement for rhetorical effect.