It’s 1997, and Pierce Brosnan’s Bond is redefining the car-chase scene in Tomorrow Never Dies. Encircled by baddies and crouched in the back seat, he flips out a Nokia mobile phone and uses it to manoeuvre his BMW 750iL through a high-rise car park. It seems far-fetched, the stuff of military-grade research labs in the New Mexico desert, not of dealership forecourts in Reigate, where you’re more likely to find hen parties than henchmen.
Fast forward to the present day, and you’re driving to the cinema to watch Daniel Craig in Spectre. You climb out of the car, whip the BMW display key from your pocket, and remotely park your new 7 series. It’s still reigate, but it’s 2015, and some of 007’s most improbable tech has become a reality.
In Bond’s 1953 print debut, Casino Royale, Ian Fleming gave the agent little in the way of gadgetry. Other than his wits, killer instinct and a Martini-toughened liver, Bond was curiously light on kit. The arrival of Dr No at the cinema didn’t progress the reputation of MI6’s spy-wear either, unless you count the Rolex Submariner’s debut – a typically gauche and iconic act of product placement.
The first time we saw Bond really upping the gadgetry stakes was in 1963’s From Russia With Love. Desmond Llewelyn’s flustered Q armed 007 with the kind of briefcase that’s not normally left behind in a Circle Line carriage. Attaché cases with Cold War-inspired spy tools were hugely popular kids’ toys in the late Fifties and early Sixties; but the adult market didn’t go without, either, thanks to Bond.
Swaine Adeney Brigg – purveyor of very posh luggage and baggage that the likes of you and I can’t afford – put on sale an exact replica of the case it made for the film, and it’s still available today for £1,995. Sadly, it lacks the folding sniper rifle, gold coins and personalised locking mechanism favoured by Mr Bond, but it does enable city gents to pretend they’re MI6 agents during their daily trudge. And if anyone steals their sandwiches, they can expect the same booby-trapped revenge dealt to Red Grant in the film’s climax – far more satisfying than an HR intervention.
Biometric ID scanners are very much a reality – how many of us still unlock our phones with a PIN code? – yet refinements and advancements in biometrics mean products that require a single user fingerprint to operate are on the rise; and they’re smart enough to recognise a faked print.
The iMbrief briefcase not only offers this type of rock-solid security, but also charging, a Wi-Fi SD card and a GPS sensor that enables precise tracking should it go astray. But a blinding briefcase isn’t exactly cutting-edge gadgetry. For that, we had to wait for 1964’s Goldfinger, and the type of ingenious implementations that Q Branch is famed for.
The film’s gadgets were such a hit that Q’s role became a subsequent Bond blueprint, along with beautiful women, witty one-liners and a stunning car – and in Goldfinger, the car was the star. Disregarding the weaponry upgrades and handy ejector seat, Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 introduced audiences to the idea of homing devices. The dashboard showed a sat-nav-esque display, which Bond used to trail the dastardly Goldfinger – and it worked, too, with all the ingenuity and precision of a TomTom. In the novel, though, Fleming described the system in Bond’s DB III failing and sending him in the wrong direction, predicting the strife of Apple Maps users by nearly 40 years. Now almost every new car rolling from the production line has the option of an onboard navigation system, while the aftermarket for dedicated GPS systems is as strong as ever, despite the gains made by dedicated operating systems such as CarPlay and Google Drive, as well as bespoke systems such as iDrive.
Mobile devices are constantly being tracked, and now cars are too. Ford most recently admitted that GPS units installed in its production models record precise speed and location data. Of course, you could go all-out Cold War crazy should you so wish, and pick up a dedicated GPS tracker or micro-transmitter, such as the GPS Evolution – the type of device used to track emergency-response vehicles in the UK to within a two-metre precision.
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The original smartwatch
Come 1965’s Thunderball, come the upgrades, and Bond took to the field with an arsenal of Q tech. A modified Breitling wristwatch packed a Geiger counter used to track down two stolen nuclear warheads. The original watch worn by Sean Connery was found in a car-boot sale in London in 2012, and picked up for £25. It later sold at auction for £160,000. While that was a one-off with a price to boot, manufacturers of rugged watch wear MTM has released a Special Ops RAD watch, which packs a Geiger-Müller tube for measuring exposure to harmful ionising radiation, should you too be on the hunt for weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, the WikiSensor app turns an iPhone into a functioning radiation reader by using the handset’s camera to read X and Gamma rays.
But Thunderball’s showstopper was 007’s jetpack, a production model of the Bell Rocket Belt. There are simpler ways to escape the entrapment of a French chateau, but none have the aplomb of Connery ascending to the skies in a rocket-fired backpack. Almost 20 years later, the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was opened by a rocket-pack-wielding stuntman, with all of the ‘wow’ factor but none of the cool of Bond.
And whether escaping from villainous adversaries or finding a particularly idiosyncratic means of avoiding the rush-hour grind, the Martin Jet Pack is pretty much the closest commercial vertical-take-off product you can get your hands on today (should you have a spare $5,000 deposit to join the lengthy order queue, a further $145,000 for the balance, and the patience to await the 2017 delivery estimate).
Slight of (second) hands
Beefing the humble wristwatch with extracurricular advancements is a Q Branch calling card, and time and again Bond is rescued by his upgraded timepieces. In the age of the smartwatch, it’s easy to cast a sardonic eye upon the inventions dished out by Q. There’s no 3D Touch here.
But 1984’s Octopussy came closest to the type of smartwatch usage seen today. Bond’s modified Seiko G757 Sports 100 watch was bolstered with a tracking device that he used to trace stolen Fabergé eggs, and a colour display screen that Bond used to plot his infiltration of a Mountainside hideaway looked like an Eighties take on Street View. In typically rogue fashion, Bond used some of the more advanced features in
his own ‘unique’ manner, ogling cleavages from afar on the watch’s LCD screen.
The miniaturisation of tech – another Q Branch calling card – has been a regular feature in Bond films, whether it be Connery’s compact Minox spy camera in From Russia With Love, or Roger Moore’s ring camera and polarising sunglasses combo in A View To A Kill. Cramming smart tech into ingeniously small and unnoticeable places is what espionage is all about, and many of Bond’s best gadgets have done just this.
The dawn of the wearable has seen many brilliant and, quite frankly, bat-shit ideas being kickstarted into production. The miniaturisation of wearable personal cameras, though, is finding a niche in live-streaming services such as Periscope and Meerkat. The likes of Narrative Clip and MeCam capture video, while concepts created by Canon (whose ring camera is yet to make production) and Hyeonsik Studio (which is developing a camera ring with a 5MP CC sensor) will make snapping on the sly easier still.
Bond’s tech advanced with the times, and in 2008’s Quantum Of Solace we got one of 007’s most memorable tech moments, as Daniel Craig and ensemble poked, pushed and pulled at a surface screen table. In the film, EoN Productions used a prototype version of the Samsung SUR40 touchscreen display running Microsoft PixelSense.
The 40-inch table screen was retired by Samsung a few years back, yet a raft of large Android tablets are available, including the rather ace Lenovo Horizon series. Or, for a mere $6,950, you can pick up the 46-inch Duet MultiTouch Coffee Table from Ideum, which runs both Windows and Android in a dual-boot system.
Unlike most of Bond’s gadgetry, though, a surface PC shows Q Branch keeping up with the times rather than leading them with new tech, so with Spectre on the horizon and a plethora of new gadgets being hinted at, we’re excited to see what new innovations Q Branch brings. Now, do pay attention, 007.
The real-life Bond
“In Ian Fleming’s books, Q Branch was a link back to the secret spy gadgets produced for the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War, " says Professor Mark Chapman, Bond expert and author of Licence to Thrill: a Cultural History of the James Bond Films. "It might be seen – rather like films such as The Dam Busters – as a reminder of British technological ingenuity.
“I doubt they ever put an ejector seat in an Aston Martin, but some of the gadgets in the films, such as the microfilm camera that Roger Moore used in Moonraker, are real enough. The infrared underwater camera in Thunderball was also a real camera, and the Q Dog in A View To A Kill was like the robots used in bomb disposal. The autogyro in You Only Live Twice was real: I’m not sure if it’s been used by the SIS, but the idea isn’t too different from today’s spy drones.
“I think the closest parallel between the films and real spying, as it were – not necessarily in terms of actual gadgets, but rather the idea behind them – is in the area of covert surveillance. The tracking device in Goldfinger, for example, sent a signal
to a screen mounted on the dashboard of Bond’s car – not unlike an early sat-nav device.
“The best one-off example was not a Bond gadget, but rather Rosa Klebb’s shoe with a retractable poisoned spike in From Russia With Love – Bulgarian spy Georgi Markov was assassinated with a poisoned umbrella spike on London’s Waterloo Bridge in 1978.”