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Cold War spy technology we all use (bbc.com)
108 points by clouddrover 57 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 36 comments

There is wealth of devices that are powered by radio waves.

Every receiving antenna could be said to be powered by radio waves since it converts radio waves to signal (albeit typically quite faint) and antennas were known way before The Thing.

The difference between The Thing and other devices is that it modulated and reflected the signal at different frequency all without use of any electronics. Every RFID chip is a bit of electronics but The Thing actually is an analog device without anything that could be recognized as electronic circuit at first sight.

As far as I understand it used some kind of resonant cavity an some kind of change in capacitance dependant on the geometry of the device. The sound waves would cause the physical setup to vibrate and the vibration would change geometry of the device causing modulation of the reflected signal.

Crystal radios are probably the earliest case of devices powered by radio waves.


Ah that brings back fond memories. I built one of those as a kid (from a kit). You had to wind your own coil and everything. It was thrilling to get it working.

That's my biggest complaint about digital broadcast.

On the other hand - AM broadcast is still totally analog, so a crystal radio should still work! I should order a kit right now!

oh likewise. I remember being completely amazed by the thing.

To extend the other comment about FM being digital (in the UK): so much tech we take for granted now is built upon layers upon layers of underlying technology. Devices have never been better but at the same time it's a real loss that we can't build stuff from scratch any longer. I learned so much as a kid from building - often bad - things.

A "foxhole razor blade" crystal radio kit is an interesting offshoot.

Thanks for this. I had no idea this was possible. Nice little project to try.

Wikipedia has a very nice writeup on the device: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thing_(listening_device)

They stress it had no active electronics. The imagery in the article clearly shows it had some metallic innards, presumably these are passive electronics for modulating the illuminating signal.

It's just an antenna and resonant cavity. No wires involved. The modulation was performed by the mechanical vibration of the diaphragm.

Maciej Ceglowski has an illustrated page + talk Our Comrade The Electron about Termen's life and inventions (The Theremin, The Thing etc) and much more. Highly recommended! I love how he presents his talks on the web.


That was a fantastic read, thank you.

Even back to the days of Archimedes and before, invention and innovation can be fueled by war and military research across many fields. Technology is almost directly tied to defense/intel research even this here internet. That is one of the dualities of the human condition. At least good can come from it.

Probably lots of reasons that research like this is attainable is due to massive budgets/funding and the ability to research an try many things in these types of r&d departments and the urgency of some research/development goals. Intelligence or military project conditions rarely apply to private market project budgets and timelines, only comparison is maybe academic research where some of the same goals/freedoms apply and both have reduced labor or essentially free labor.

> innovation can be fueled by war and military research

This reminds me what I read about Leonardo da Vinci "pitching" for funding and sponsorship, with various inventions for military use like crossbows, catapults, steam-powered cannons, armored tanks..

I imagine those innovations are due to tremendous spending, funded by taxes.

I wonder what these engineers would be doing with their time otherwise. What those tax dollars could have accomplished.

Sure we get a few pieces of technology, but it's at enormous cost.

Especially when we hear about small companies or founders able to create useful technology.

Not exactly perfect, but, a broken clock is right twice a day.

I actually think that it's not a broken clock.

Innovation during war is expedited because while the government and public agencies are massively inefficient during peace time. In war the brightest resource are drawn/forced to align with the government, increasing its capability. Whatever redtape that used to exist are now ditched for more efficiency, while if you keep being a massively inefficient government, you risk losing the war and everything. All of these factors proceed to make innovation pace much faster on matters that are somewhat related to military.

I'm not sure that things become more "efficient" resource-wise during wartime, but they do become more focused, urgent priorities. This could be said for any urgent crisis or ambitious goal actually resourced in peacetime.

The journey to the moon was an example of this. Did we do it efficiently? Probably not. We spent tons of cash and resources that otherwise may have been used more efficiently, but we achieved the objective.

During war, the biggest gain is SPEED in the prioritization and removal of red tape, and acceptance of risk (death, health risk, etc) to achieve the objective (as you mention).

Want to build a nuclear reactor in Chicago? Go for it. Have to build TWO competing uranium generating plants to hedge your risks at the costs of billions? Yes, of course. I would hesitate to say, however, that war develops these innovations more efficiently than at other times.

> while the government and public agencies are massively inefficient during peace time

Not just government. During WWII, removing roadblocks to industrial productivity was a focus of government-industrial joint effort. Now, creating such "moats" is a focus of effort and policy.

Or take science education. During the cold war, there was much concern that it actually work. Else we fall behind. That concern permitted disrupting existing interests. Now... not so much.

Would this apply to, say, the Iraq War?

That wasn't an "existential" war for the US.

As the saying went, "The US Army is at war. The US is at the mall".

The challenges of the Iraq War that needed this kind of singular, focused effort were not really super publicized. I would say that counter-IED tech (IED Defeat), armored vehicle development, and possibly intelligence gathering platforms / fusion and special operator techniques, tactics, and procedures likely saw the biggest "focus" in terms of the military.

I would not argue that this was efficient, well organized, or toward a single goal, but rather got a bunch of money dumped on it due to national priorities and something shook out.

The IED threat led to significant improvements in personal protection and medical care for casualties.

There were also steps backward in preparedness due to the focus on counterinsurgency ops, e.g. loss of experience in areas such as air defence and armoured warfare which weren't relevant for most of the operation (also in Afghanistan).

No. The Iraq War did not pose a risk to the US.

Neither has any other war besides WWII.

As someone from a country that lost 20% of it's population to it, I'm going to go ahead and say that the last thing I ever want to see is another war that poses an existential threat to a superpower surrounded by two oceans.

You're hitting on something interesting, let me take you to its logical conclusion. Essentially what you're arguing for is redeploying all these smart people to work on non-military work. However, in the absence of large, well-funded and long running programs, its hard for people to make such innovations. Most startups fail, most big corporations don't really care about R&D (with a few notable exceptions). So the only place where you can have the job stability and funding to pursue such innovation is either in Academia or military research.

This is where I like the approach the US has taken. Instead of spending all the military dollars in building more armaments or having more boots on ground, the US military recognized the importance of technology to military superiority and invested tons of money in it. And it has payed off very handsomely for the US economy, even in peace time.

I have strong doubts about your claims of innovation in the military and academia.

Edit, vs Industry.

>what these engineers would be doing with their time otherwise

It's illegal for one to R&D one's own weapons and counter-weapons systems at certain functionality. If one wishes to develop cutting edge military technology, one must sadly commit his life to it at the government's approval.

Erm, to clarify.

Making labor saving inventions, communication, improvements to infrastructure, discovering new science.

I did not mean weapons.

The Thing is an early version of the RAGEMASTER device used by the NSA. Neat! :)


A similar listening device is on exhibit at the DDR spy museum in Berlin. It’s worth a visit.

Tangentially related, for anyone with an interest in surveillance craft, the US Embassy in Moscow was bugged from the ground up:


A cold war military spy writes about bugging a tank training field: “Unter Vier Augen"


The most remarkable thing about it is that it is completely undetectable by even most sensitive nonlinear junction detectors - something that is hard to pull out even today.

If the thing can be made into a poorer resonator, it can be made undetectable to modern day bug detection

Here's a good presentation by Michael Ossmann on DIY retroreflectors with a HackRF:


I think I have seen other articles about "The Thing" on HN before.

Sure, see below. I still think it is very interesting and not everyone has seen an article about it I'm sure



Is that woman scanning an RFID with an iPaq?

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