A wise man (might have) once said: it’s not the gadgets that make the man, but the man who makes the gadgets. Never was this truer than in the case of MI6’s Agent 007, James Bond.
With Bond’s twenty-third film, Skyfall, we’re taking a look back at the outrageous Agent’s gadgets that wowed the public upon first sight, and have since become commonplace. Bond may not be directly responsible for their invention, but those behind the series have exhibited an uncanny ability to predict technological innovation.
The New ‘Q’ Ben Whishaw has a tall order, if the technological foreshadowing of past gadgets holds true for Skyfall.
Easily the most recognizable vehicle ever featured in the franchise, the Aston Martin DB5 first appeared in Goldfinger (1964). From that point on it was simply ‘James Bond’s car,’ due largely to its special features, courtesy of ‘Q’ (Desmond Llewelyn).
While Q never explains exactly how the tracking beacons Bond uses to find Auric Goldfinger’s base work, the DB5’s interface is one we know today as resembling Satellite Navigation, or a Global Positioning System (GPS). Transmitting the information directly to his in-car map without the need for pesky radar dishes, Bond (Sean Connery) was able to track his nemesis’ exact location.
Drivers today more often use their GPS to find a nearby restaurant than a smuggling kingpin, but considering that GPS wasn’t developed until the late 1960s, and not completed until 1994, Q was ahead of the curve. The Aston Martin DB5 is set to return in Skyfall, with moviegoers no longer impressed by Bond’s tracking system, since they can compare it to the one in their minivan.
Bond’s Astin was setting more than a few trends when it showed up in Goldfinger, although its revolving license plates seemed far more promising at the time. Used by 007 to avoid the authorities by spinning plates with the flip of a switch, the audience mused at just how many rules of the road (like focusing on a hard-to-read GPS screen instead of traffic) could be ignored with such a gadget.
Apparently some did more than just imagine it. These spy-plates may not be commonplace in the United States (not that we would know) but overseas, they’ve become a scourge. In 2008, Chinese authorities reported that over 50% of cars caught by speed cameras were implementing either covered or counterfeit plates. Simply covering up plates is easy to spot, so speeders have concocted a new scheme: a remote control device that flips the plates in a matter of seconds.
That’s right: James Bond’s spinning license plates are now a reality, and being used to avoid speeding tickets. A bit anticlimactic, but still promising for the rest of the DB5’s gadgets.
Fans of Live and Let Die (1973) know the scene well: James (Roger Moore) and the stunning Solitaire (Jane Seymour) are making their way to the airport when they discover the taxi driver is actually working for evil heroin supplier, Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto).
Before James can react, the driver preempts his attack by deploying… a bulletproof shield between himself and his passengers!
The locked doors and indestructible partition trap Bond and Solitaire like fish in a barrel – a barrel occupied by commuters on a daily basis. The glass divider had begun to be implemented in taxi cabs around 1967, but were still not widespread enough to prepare Bond for the unexpected twist.
Regardless of how surprised international audiences would have been, the image of a secret agent reduced to helplessly pounding on a cab’s glass partition makes the film worth repeat viewings. And apparently, it hasn’t scared Bond off of cabs permanently.
Fans will recall (for various reasons) James Bond trading his tuxedo for a wetsuit in Thunderball (1965). In the course of his investigation against SPECTRE, Bond utilizes a nearly unbelievable gadget – an underwater camera.
The prototype used in filming was known as the ‘Calypso-Nikkor’; the collective invention of Belgian engineer Jean De Wouters and Nikon. Designed for use by Jacques Cousteau, the camera became known as the ‘Nikonos’ line, and was the first widely-produced underwater camera. But James was going to need more than quality photos against his opponents.
He’d also need propulsion, in the form of a speciall- designed scuba tank equipped with a jet engine and headlight (for safety). Underwater propulsion had been used as early as WWI, but a portable Diver Propulsion Vehicle of the size and efficiency of Bond’s wasn’t seen until 1969, when Ralph Osterhout demonstrated his MK I for the US Navy.
Now versions of the DPV are available for rental from most major diving operations, and online for as low as USD $300. They may not resemble James’ dangerous and inefficient scuba tank, but are popular enough to warrant an annual Grand Prix in South Florida.
The modern incarnation of Bond may spend day and night in the pursuit of his prey, relying on grand theatrics and stunts to wow audiences, but 007 wasn’t always such a workaholic. In From Russia With Love (1963) Bond’s various romantic exploits meant he spent relatively little time in the office. In order to keep him within reach, MI6 issued him technology normally used exclusively for doctors – a pager.
The anachronistic scenes of James being paged, then calling in via his car phone speak for themselves in terms of how far mobile phone technology has come. Pagers wouldn’t become widely popular until the 1990s, with the same being true of car phones. In fact, it’s worth noting that while both devices showed the importance of James Bond to the British government, developed nations have now made them painfully obsolete.
With GPS, phones, and beautiful passengers, Bond was the definition of a reckless driver in the 1960s. And he doesn’t seem to have gotten any safer.
Those are just a few of 007’s gadgets that have already made their way from pulp novels into common usage. While this collection should encourage a bit more reflection and appreciation of the amount of technology held at our fingertips, it should also elicit excitement over what’s to come next.
Skyfall trailers demonstrated the use of palm print recognition in Bond’s pistol: technology that law enforcement officials continue to pursue. After all, the inventors of the world can’t get all of their inspirations from Star Trek, can they?
Skyfall is now in theaters.
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