Engineering and Popular Culture: The Innovation of James Bond

The IEEE History Center takes a look back at the technologies applied by Bond and his associates

7 July 2009

The James Bond character was created by British author Ian Fleming in his 1953 novel Casino Royale, but is known around the world to many through the James Bond movies. Since they first appeared in 1962, the Bond movies have been known for their futuristic technologies and high-tech gadgets. Over the years, many of those items have moved from fantasy to fact and become everyday technologies, including cellphones, automotive cruise control, and flat-screen televisions. Frederik Nebeker, senior research historian at the IEEE History Center, takes a look back at the technologies applied by Bond and his associates.

In 22 films over four decades, James Bond movies have dazzled the public with many new gadgets. From Russia With Love (1963), the second Bond film, shows off a beeper, 11 years before Motorola’s Pageboy, the first commercially successful pager in the United States. Other new Bond communications technologies include secure communications, seen in the scrambler used in Thunderball (1965); a videophone in a car, in You Only Live Twice (1967); miniaturized two-way radio, as seen in a woman’s compact in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969); a frequency scanner to locate police radio, in The Living Daylights (1987); electronic money transfer, in GoldenEye (1995); and a cellphone that takes a picture and transmits it elsewhere, in Die Another Day (2002).

When Goldfinger, the third James Bond movie opened in 1964, most people had never heard of a laser, which Ted Maiman at Hughes Aircraft had built in 1960. An early scene in the movie featured an industrial laser, whose workings archvillain Auric Goldfinger helpfully explains to Bond (as it is about to kill the agent). The studio was proud of that scene, boasting in a press release that the movie “is sure to give the laser its greatest international publicity as a scientific development of great power and worth in the modern world.”

The Aston Martins, Ferraris, and other sports cars that James Bond drove attracted much attention. So did the technologies made for the vehicles, such as a plan-position-indicator screen allowing Bond to track a planted transmitter in Goldfinger, the cruise control in a tanker truck in Licence to Kill (1989), the remote control of a BMW in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), and the navigation system in a speedboat that guides Bond to a shortcut through London’s waterways in The World Is Not Enough (1999).

New military technologies also make their debut in Bond movies. There is an infrared scope on a sniper rifle in From Russia With Love and night-vision goggles in The Living Daylights. A surveillance satellite tracks submarines with an infrared camera using heat signature recognition in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). Two important anti-radar techniques, both developed during World War II, are shown: jamming in Moonraker (1979) and antiradar coating of a stealth ship in Tomorrow Never Dies.

We learn about AWACS (airborne warning and control system) aircraft in Licence to Kill. We even learn how the guidance system finds a match between stored information in its memory and the terrain passed over by the missile. The Living Daylights shows the use of a heads-up display for firing missiles, and a sniper in The World Is Not Enough uses a rifle-mounted laser to fix a target.

Not surprisingly, security systems are featured in many Bond movies. Diamonds Are Forever (1971) shows the surveillance system in a casino, and video surveillance plays a large role in Octopussy (1983). Licence to Kill includes a pistol with a “signature grip,” allowing it to be fired only by one particular person. Several techniques for access to secure areas are shown, including voice matching in GoldenEye and handprint matching in Die Another Day.

The first Bond movie, Dr. No (1962), explains the workings of a Geiger counter, used to detect atomic radiation. A View to a Kill (1985) presents a surveillance robot. Several Bond movies—the first was For Your Eyes Only (1981)—show the automatic searching of an image database.

Newly introduced consumer electronics also appear in Bond movies, such as the Pulsar digital watch in Live and Let Die (1973) and an LCD television in Octopussy.

The Bond movies certainly piqued the moviegoer’s interest in technology, but along with actual or merely feasible devices came healthy dollops of fantasy. The “active camouflage” that makes a car invisible in Die Another Day, the Rolex wristwatch that produces a magnetic field powerful enough to deflect a bullet in Live and Let Die, and the neck-implanted electronic device that makes one person’s voice sound like another’s in Diamonds Are Forever are hardly realistic.

But most of the technology is authentic, and even the counterexamples are theoretically possible. The Bond movies as a whole have become more realistic with time, as many of the things that amazed audiences earlier—such as pagers, portable phones, and tracking devices—are today part of everyday life.

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