Left to his own devices

James Bond first hit the big screen 40 years ago this week. On the eve of a Science Museum retrospective, product designer Andy Davey pays homage to 007’s gadgets and asks: could they ever really work?

As the saying goes, the devil has all the best tunes. In the seemingly eternal James Bond film series, the baddies have all the best gadgets, too. From Rosa Klebb’s spiked, poisoned shoes in From Russia With Love to Oddjob’s steel-rimmed bowler hat in Goldfinger, the most cunning gadgets were in the hands of Bond’s arch enemies rather than 007 himself.

Of course, Bond had his fair share too and it is Q, short for ‘Quartermaster’ in military parlance, who furnished him with his film’s worth of gadgets. The much-anticipated exchanges between the pedantic and irascible Q and the insouciant, inconsiderate Bond are brief but memorable episodes and central to our anticipation of the story (‘When is he going to use the flame-throwing hair dryer?’). Q even manages to predict Bond’s exact gadget requirements before each mission begins.

Bond’s gizmos follow the zeitgeist more closely than any other military, political or economic nuance in the films, and reflect our continuing optimism in the sure-fire possibilities of technology. They have illustrated several significant technological trends of our time, from miniaturisation and multi-functionality to truly wearable technology.

In the 1960s and 1970s the Bond gadget was a representation of the future that maybe, eventually, someday we could experience. The car phone and pager used in 1963’s From Russia With Love predated our obsession with the mobile phone by 40 years. And miniature gadgets such as Bond’s ring camera in A View To A Kill, a 1960s and 1970s ideal, is now the norm, with matchbox-sized digital cameras.

But the slightly duff 1980s and 1990s Bond films featured unapologetically branded gadgets and product positioning, and lost the rather endearing hand-made quality of the gadgets Q provided. More importantly, the ambition of the gadgets diminished, as they became products of tomorrow rather than the distant future, leaving behind the homely logic of the pocket rocket or cufflink camera. They became prosaic and predictable, as if Q-section was running out of real creative ideas.

On film, Bond’s most used contraption, apart from his lady-pleaser, is his 7.25mm Walther PPK pistol. A subtle, compact weapon of choice, effective, but small enough to avoid spoiling the line of his suit. In the original 1953 novel Casino Royale, Bond’s weapon was a .25 calibre Beretta, and the switch to a Walther PPK (in the Dr No film) was made at the suggestion of a certain Major General Boothroyd, who advised Bond author Ian Fleming that it might be a more suitable weapon for an agent of Bond’s calibre. In fact, Major Boothroyd became the prototype Q and in the first movie, Dr No, the name ‘Boothroyd’ appears in the credits instead of the subsequent and now familiar Q.

Guns are a mainstay of the Bond films and 007’s PPK aside, who can forget the fiendishly clever pistol, assembled from Scaramanga’s gold Dunhill cigarette lighter, cigarette case, cuff link and pen in The Man With The Golden Gun, or the Piton gun used by Bond to gain entry into Willard Whyte’s casino toilet in Diamonds Are Forever? In fact, Bond was no more faithful to his PPK than his girlfriends, using a crude .44 Magnum and a gun that used compressed air bullets, literally blowing up Dr Kanaga in Live and Let Die, before finally switching to a Walther P99 in Tomorrow Never Dies.

But for the majority of Bond fans, the most important gadgets are his cars. A key car moment was the appearance of the Aston Martin DB5, first seen in 1964’s Goldfinger. It was weighed down by countless offensive and defensive gadgets, the best of which was an ejector seat (‘An ejector seat? You’re joking,’ says Bond. ‘I never joke about my work, 007,’ replies Q). The car even featured the brilliantly named Davey Tracer device used to track Goldfinger’s Rolls Royce.

Through Bond, the Aston Martin has remained close to the heart of many a boy growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, with a Corgi DB5 in one hand and a Curly Wurly in the other. While Fleming’s books featured a Lagonda or a Bentley, the fully-equipped Aston Martin went straight to the heart of the stealthy, antipersonnel weaponry technology of the 1960s, and as such, spawned Bond-type spy weapons in real life. These include the poisoned umbrella dart used to kill Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov on Waterloo Bridge 23 years ago and Russia’s KGB (now the FSB) assassination this year of Chechen leader Khattab by delivering him an envelope laced with a neurotoxin that was quickly absorbed through his skin.

As the Cold War thawed and more prosaic, but equally corrosive, preoccupations such as drugs and the environment were reflected in Bond film storylines, it was the gadgets that sustained the level of dastardly cunningness and invention needed to maintain 007’s edge over his adversaries. But as time has gone by, one of Commander Bond’s stronger aliases could be Mr James Brand, so well supplied is he with Omega, Dom Perignon, Aston Martin and Ericsson, not to mention Walther. Product placement is a recent and less welcome development, and signifies a narrowing of what we perceive as ‘near future’ technology to what can (almost) be bought on the high street. In the early Bonds, any miniaturised gadget, be it a car, camera or gun, seemed cool partly because it remained so tantalisingly technologically unobtainable.

Today we’ve lost not only Q, but also our innocence and sense of wonder, as so many surveillance, personal protection and antipersonnel devices are now two-a-(Money)penny.

‘We’ve been expecting you’

how 007’s gadgets have spawned some of today’s products


Goldfinger, Tomorrow Never Dies, Thunderball and Goldeneye

The archetypal Bond wheels, the Aston Martin DB5 featured revolving number plates, two forward-firing machine guns, two rear high-pressure water sprayers, a bullet-proof shield and, of course, an ejector seat. All these features are theoretically possible on a street car, with a few modifications.

A less gruesome alternative to the machine guns is a high-frequency pulse emitter, which could destroy the pursuing vehicle’s car management electronics, rendering it useless. Revolving number plates are a great way to beat the Gatso speed camera-curse on our roads, but contemporary motors would do better to upgrade to number plate-sized LCD panels for thousands of permutations, not to mention ‘messages’ for drivers who tailgate you. The tracker device is really a contemporary satellite navigation system. And the ejector seat? Keep that as it is.


From Russia With Love

Rosa Klebb, the diminutive former SMERSH agent, owned a pair of clunky shoes that concealed a nasty weapon, a poison-tipped spike. Totally believable, it’s basically a flick knife in a shoe. This lethal dispatching method could easily have been adapted for the umbrella used in the Markov assassination (see main text).

A contemporary version with the old spike technology would mean clumping around in Vivienne Westwoods rather than Manolo Blahniks. So for today’s more delicate footwear, the poisoned blade would need to be supplanted with high-pressure jet injectors that would shoot the poison through the skin on contact, rather like modern needleless syringes.


Various films

The first digital watch ever seen made its debut on Bond’s wrist in 1973’s Live and Let Die. Bond’s Omega Seamaster is a mainstay, and Q designed all sorts of gizmos into Bond’s timepiece (true wearable technology long before the term was coined): a Geiger counter (Thunderball), a circular saw (Live And Let Die), a ticker tape messager (The Spy Who Loved Me), explosives (Moonraker), a radio/messager (For Your Eyes Only), a homing device and video screen (Octopussy), a laser (Never Say Never Again and Goldeneye) and a grappling hook (The World Is Not Enough). Today, of course, a Casio WQV10 wrist camera can take colour digital images, a Bond gadget made real.


From Russia With Love

The attaché case, a classic 007 product, was also Bond’s first-ever screen gadget, in the form of a Q-Branch briefcase in From Russia With Love. It incorporated a knife, 50 gold sovereigns, 20 rounds of ammunition, a .25 calibre AR-7 folding rifle and an exploding canister of tear gas. Just in case.

The modern equivalent of the briefcase is the laptop computer. A bit more difficult to fit a knife, coins, ammo, a rifle and tear gas into a skinny Titanium G4, but you could always hit your enemies with it.


The Spy Who Loved Me

This wedge-shaped car converted to a submarine and featured a rear-facing paint pump, an integral missile, a ‘squid ink’ sprayer, torpedoes and a mine.

The Giorgio Giugiaro-designed Lotus Esprit still cannot perform any of the tasks that it did in The Spy Who Loved Me, even after decades of production. It looked great as a submarine and allegedly handled better underwater too.

A car like this would be particularly useful in our flood-prone island. Some stealth electronics borrowed from current submarine technology could ‘cloak’ an underwater Lotus, thereby making it invisible to radar.


Diamonds Are Forever

Bond and arch enemy Blofeld both used this device in Diamonds Are Forever to disguise their voices – Bond as Burt Saxby and Blofeld as Willard White.

This kind of product is available as a digital voice changer. Imitation fingerprints from Diamonds Are Forever and imitation nipples in The Man With The Golden Gun were also landmark 007 effects. I recall that we used Copydex to achieve similar results at school.


Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Octopussy

London’s traffic-choked roads could be avoided by using any one of Bond’s flying accessories.

The Bell Textron Jet Pack was used by him to escape from the mansion in the opening sequence of Thunderball (pictured). Little Nellie, a mini helicopter packed in four alligator suitcases, featured two machine guns, two forward-firing rocket launchers, heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, two flame guns, two smoke ejectors and aerial mines, and was central to You Only Live Twice.

Then there was the Acrostar Mini Jet in Octopussy (pictured). Fitting inside a horsebox, this mini-jet had high speeds and agility, but little range. I’m not sure if it ran on methane.

Check out more gadgets at www.jamesbondmm.com, www.gadgetuniverse.com, www.boysstuff.co.uk and www.paramountzone.com

Andy Davey is principal at TKO Design

Bond, James Bond runs at the Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London SW7 from 16 October to 31 March 2003

The next Bond film, Die Another Day, opens in the UK and the US on 22 November

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