The Cold War was a fraught time during the heady superpower rivalry being waged – sometimes hot, sometimes cold – throughout the world between the West and the Soviet Union. Inventive intelligence tradecraft devices were used by both sides to conduct dead drops (fake dog poop, anyone?), secret writing to smuggle out top secret messages, miniature cameras to photograph military documents…and microphones used to surreptitiously record conversations, like this 1950s wearable microphone here, disguised as a Hanhart chronograph watch.
But first a real-world user experience with the Hanhart… In July 1977, CIA agent Martha Peterson walked along Krasnoluzhskiy Bridge over the Moscow River. Over the previous half day, she had been conducting a surveillance detection route: walking, riding a bicycle, taking buses and taxis in circles–seeking to evade the ever-present KGB surveillance teams. The route continued into the night – as keeping an asset safe in the hostile Cold War environment of Moscow was of paramount importance.
At nearly 11 at night, she approached a bridge to be used as her dead drop site, focused and confident – over the past year and a half, she had done this a dozen times without a hitch, and on this night she had no reason to think anything would go wrong. 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 approached to apprehend her. Peterson wasn’t giving up without a fight - she put one KGB agent in the hospital, and fought so hard that during the struggle one of the agents broke her wristwatch in the process.
As it turns out, Peterson wasn’t an ordinary spy—they had been expecting to arrest a man and were surprised to find her, instead—and this wasn’t an ordinary wristwatch. It was a microphone, wired to a receiver on Peterson’s torso - her Hanhart "chronograph."
These watches - like the example here - were manufactured by Protona, a small German company that specialized in making the world’s smallest wire recorders, with its flagship device the Minifon Mi-51 being small enough to fit in a coat pocket.
Protona would go on to introduce a range of accessories: an array of microphones, control mechanisms, and car adapters – one of these would be a striking handsome two-register “chronograph” wristwatch, complete with a tachymeter, small seconds, and small gold hands, usually sold under the Hanhart name.
The case back on this watch is perforated around the edges to allow the microphone inside to pick up sound. Awkwardly, the mic wire ran from the left side of the case up the wearer’s left arm…if you wanted to use the watch as designed, the wearer had to wear long sleeves (probably unhelpful in environs like Africa and the Middle East).
Per the Crypto Museum, “the microphone is very sensitive and the user has to ensure that it doesn’t brush against the clothing.” Regardless, and despite Protona going out of business in 1967, intelligence agencies worldwide continued to use their watch microphones for decades.
Per Worn & Wound, “German agents on both sides of the Berlin Wall used them. In Australia, it was 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.”
As you probably guessed, the microphone replaced the watch movement, so this watch is only accurate twice a day; despite this, the watch was expensive when Protona was in business – during the 1950’s, it sold for $1,700, with a normal Hanhart chronograph running less than half this. But for a piece of Cold War spy tradecraft history? With legit war stories? Cheap!
This Hanhart spy watch comes on its original strap, springbar tool, and hard plastic travel case.
For a fantastic description of watches in espionage tradecraft - to include this one - check out this Hodinkee article, here.
1950’s Cold War Hanhart Wearable Microphone Spy Watch
DIAL: Silver Hanhart-signed dial, with affixed hour, minute, second, and chronograph hands.
CASE: Stainless-steel case measures 41mm (41.5mm with crown) x 48mm stainless steel case. On the left side of the watch is a jack for the audio cord, with the cord attached.
CRYSTAL: Domed acrylic crystal, with date cyclops; no scratches or cracks.
BAND: This Hanhart comes with its original brown leather strap, with stainless-steel hardware.
MOVEMENT: None. It’s a spy watch!
CROWN: Non-functioning unsigned stainless-steel crowns and pushers.