For Your Eyes Only: the Secret Microphone Wristwatch Worn by Cold War Spies

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On the night of July 15, 1977, CIA agent Martha Peterson walked along Krasnoluzhskiy Bridge over the Moscow River. She had spent the last four hours on a surveillance detection run: walking, riding a bicycle, taking buses and taxis in circles–evading any KGB surveillance teams. Night fell. It was half past ten. She approached one of the bridge’s stone towers. She was focused and confident; in the past 18 months she had done this a dozen times, all without a hitch, and on this night she had no reason to think anything would go wrong.

Peterson reached inside a crevice in the stone tower and placed what looked like a piece of asphalt inside. The sizeable chunk of rock was hollow and sealed with screws; inside was some cash, film, and an encrypted note addressed to one TRIGON, a man who was vital to the CIA’s spycraft operations. A young Russian who Peterson had never met.

TRIGON was Aleksandr Ogorodnik, a Russian diplomat originally stationed in Bogota, Colombia, but was now ensconced within the Soviet Foreign Ministry. Now, he had unprecedented contact to diplomatic papers, especially those concerning Soviet policy in Latin America. He photographed these and sent them to the CIA via a series of “dead drops,” messages hidden in anything from rocks to hollow bricks to the empty cavities of dead rats.

Lately, however, TRIGON felt compromised. Moscow was a ruthless place to be, after all. He had missed the last dead drop two weeks earlier. Peterson was tasked with picking these up and leaving further messages to him from the CIA. “We were only passing in the night,” she said.

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Unbeknownst to her, however, was the fact that TRIGON had been under investigation for months–betrayed by a spy within the CIA ranks–and arrested a month earlier. Upon signing a confession for the KGB at his apartment, he requested to use his own fountain pen, then slipped a cyanide capsule from its end. Within minutes, he was dead. He was just 38 years old.

When Peterson reached the bottom of a stairwell, however, three men jumped out and grabbed her. Then, a van pulled up, a dozen KGB agents jumped out, and made the arrest.

Peterson, who held a green belt in Tae Kwon Do, put up one hell of a struggle. As they grabbed her, she managed to kick one agent squarely in the groin, all the while screaming “PROVOCATION!” over and over again– an attempt to ward off TRIGON. She fought so fiercely she put one agent in the hospital. During the struggle, one of the agents—Alpha Group commander Gennady Nikolaevich Zaitsev—grabbed her wrist, breaking her wristwatch in the process.

Photo credit: Spycraft by Robert Wallace and H Keith Melton

As it turns out, Peterson wasn’t an ordinary spy—they had been expecting to arrest a man and were surprised to find her there—and this wasn’t an ordinary wristwatch. It was a microphone, wired to a receiver on Peterson’s torso.

“In the heady days of mid-century espionage…the secret microphone watch wasn’t so much James Bondian fantasy as it was standard procedure.”

She was taken to the prison at Lubyanka, where she requested to meet with a representative from the US embassy. The agents obliged. Clifford Gross, the US Consul General, woke up in the middle of the night and went to Lubyanka, where he beseeched the KGB to keep the arrest hush-hush. And when the KGB presented their case, they noticed the dejected-looking Gross wearing two wristwatches, one on each arm. One of them was also a microphone.


In the heady days of mid-century espionage—where agents stashed documents in dead rats and the CIA once tried to kill Castro with ice cream—anything goes, and anything went, and the secret microphone watch wasn’t so much James Bondian fantasy as it was standard procedure.

Protona recorder
Photo credit: Crypto Museum

Protona was a small German company that shocked the world in 1951 when it introduced the Minifon Mi-51, the world’s smallest wire recorder. It was small enough to fit in a coat pocket or purse. Within its Bakelite case was a nickel-chrome wire just 0.05mm in diameter, which could record up to four hours, and with two AA batteries could run for over two. The wire reel was just 4.5mm wide. Uncurled, the wire itself measured nearly two miles in length. Metal wire proved to be virtually indestructible and impossible to erase; indeed, the man who invented the airplane flight recorder based his design off a Protona Minifon.

Four years later Protona came out with the P55, an even smaller recorder. For the next five years it would be the company’s most popular product. Protona introduced a range of accessories: an array of microphones, control mechanisms, and car adapters.

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Photo credit: Crypto Museum
Photo credit: Crypto Museum

And alongside these would be its most memorable addition yet–a handsome two-register “chronograph” wristwatch, complete with a tachymeter, small seconds, and delicate gold hands. It came with an array of dials. Some were black, some were inscribed with the Protona brand, or Antimagnetic, or 21 Jewels, or 17 Jewels–the usual wristwatch paraphernalia—and more often than not they were sold under the Hanhart name.

“One dead giveaway for agents, I’d imagine, would be to ask the wearer to check the time.”

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The microphone equipment inside the case was a marvel of packaging. The back of the case was perforated around the edges to allow the microphone inside to pick up sound. The wire ran from the left side of the case up the wearer’s left arm—long sleeves only. According to the Crypto Museum, “the microphone is very sensitive and the user has to ensure that it doesn’t brush against the clothing.”

There was no watch movement inside (an auction listing claims a quartz movement inside, which would have been impressive a whole two decades before Seiko invented it). One dead giveaway for agents, I’d imagine, would be to ask the wearer to check the time. The pushers weren’t functional and the second hand was permanently fixed to 12 o’clock, but judging by the myriad of photos available online, one could still adjust the time to be right twice a day.

Protona went out of business in 1967, but spy agencies around the world still used their microphone watches for decades. German agents on both sides of the Berlin Wall used them. In Australia, it was somewhat linked to the Petrov Affair, a dramatic incident where Soviet spy Vladimir Petrov defected to Australia while KGB agents tried to kidnap his wife. In the late 1950s, Dallas nightclub owner and future assassin’s assassin Jack Ruby decided to become an FBI informant, for some reason, and bought $500 worth of spy equipment—including a microphone wristwatch.538976288The Protona kit wasn’t cheap. In the mid-Fifties it could be yours for the low, low price of 350 Deutsche Marks—which, after converting to US dollars, and then today’s US dollars, is roughly $1,700. By that standard, this Hanhart-branded microphone currently on eBay for $1,275 is a bargain. In 2014, Bonhams estimated a Protona example from $750-1000, and just a few weeks ago a British auction house let the hammer drop on another Protona, though not literally, for just $550.

For a genuine piece of Cold War history, it’s a bargain.


That night, the KGB agreed to keep the Peterson incident under wraps. At two in the morning, Peterson was released. The next day, the Soviet Union declared her persona non grata and she was sent out of the country; she boarded the first flight out of Moscow and was never allowed back into Russia. She wasn’t even able to retrieve her belongings from her apartment.

A year later, the incident broke.

Decades later, in an article for Spetsnaz Rossii, the special forces’ own newsletter, Zaitsev recalled in detail the night of the arrest. He had broken her watch in the struggle, sure, but the KGB agent was not entirely cruel, per se. While riding to KGB headquarters, in a rather charitable act, he had tried to fix it for her. “Seeing that the arrest was taking longer than necessary, I helped the guys by firmly grabbing her hand, squeezing it at the wrist,” he wrote. “As a result, I broke the bracelet of her watch, which, as it turned out, contained a microphone connected to a recording device on her body. While riding in the car, I repaired her bracelet.

“Nevertheless, later the U.S. Embassy sent a complaint to our Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the broken watch and bruises on her hands.”

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Hailing from the middle coast of Austin, Texas, Blake Z. Rong is a freelance writer, researcher, one-time podcast host, and occasional automotive journalist. When he was 13, he took apart a quartz watch and forgot how to put it back together again. His love for watches has lingered ever since. He can usually be found on his motorcycle speeding across Texas Hill Country.
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  • Peter Jorde

    Excellent article Blake, with all the talk about US/Soviet relations lately, I would think a bit of cold war memorabelia would be quite attractive.

  • Big Al

    Thanks for writing this. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

  • Jim B

    Great story

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