James Bond's 'Q' Inspires Real-Life Innovators One of the most enduring and endearing characters of author Ian Fleming's books about super-spy James Bond is Q, the brilliant gadget man. Today, Q's influence reverberates throughout government agencies in the United States and abroad.
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James Bond's 'Q' Inspires Real-Life Innovators

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James Bond's 'Q' Inspires Real-Life Innovators

James Bond's 'Q' Inspires Real-Life Innovators

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

This week is the 100th anniversary of Ian Fleming's birth.

(Soundbite of James Bond Theme Music)

SHAPIRO: Fleming is, of course, the author famous for creating James Bond. MORNING EDITION will tell you all about Bond and Fleming later this week. We, on the other hand, decided to pay tribute this morning to one of Fleming's less flashy characters.

(Soundbite of movie, "License to Kill")

Mr. TIMOTHY DALTON (Actor): (as James Bond) This is no place for you, Q. Go home.

Mr. DESMOND LLEWELYN (Actor): (as Q) Oh, don't be an idiot, 007. I know exactly what you're up to and quite frankly you're going to need my help. Remember, if it hadn't been for Q Branch, you would have been dead long ago.

SHAPIRO: Over the decades, Bond's Quartermaster kept 007 alive with a laboratory full of toys, many of them lethal.

(Soundbite of movie, "License to Kill")

Mr. LLEWELYN: (as Q) Explosive alarm clock, guaranteed never to wake up anybody you use it with; an ordinary tin of talcum powder inside a tear gas cartridge; smoke screen, oil slick, real bulletproof screen, and left and right front wing machine guns; Dentonite toothpaste, to be used sparingly.

SHAPIRO: Desmond Llewelyn is the man audiences know best as Q. He appeared in 17 Bond movies, more than any other actor in the series. In a documentary, Llewelyn described the way he first discovered James Bond.

Mr. LLEWELYN: I'd never read a Bond book but in those days, I took the Daily Express and in the Daily Express, they had a strip about Bond. And I was fascinated by them, and I thought they were marvelous. And I always thought to myself, my God, I wish I had some money because I'm sure this would make a good film.

SHAPIRO: Llewelyn's last Bond film was "The World is Not Enough" in 1999. He died later that year.

Ian Fleming drew the inspiration for Q from a real-life engineer named Charles Fraser Smith. Smith worked for the British government's Ministry of Supply; he designed tools for agents during World War II. And today, Q's descendants are working in nondescript offices throughout Britain and the U.S.

(Soundbite of beeping)

SHAPIRO: Like America's Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C.

Mr. ROLF DIETRICH (Deputy Director of Research, Department of Homeland Security): I'm Rolf Dietrich.

SHAPIRO: And what's your title here?

Mr. DIETRICH: My title here is I'm the deputy director of research.

SHAPIRO: But you're unofficially known as...

Mr. DIETRICH: Unofficially known as Q. As you saw, my nameplate on the door is Q.

SHAPIRO: Your nameplate literally says Q. Where did that come from?

Mr. DIETRICH: Did you see it?

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: Yeah. And I see you've got a button on the wall, too, that says Q.

Mr. DIETRICH: Yeah. And one of my co-workers gave me a big sign that says Q. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: So, this is a very important role that you play here?

Mr. DIETRICH: Absolutely. And we have our own Bonds in the field. I mean, we got, you know, the Border Patrol agents, you know, we've got a lot of folks out there who - boots on the ground, you know, they're doing the hard job. And, you know, my job is just to make their job easier, better, whatever, with new innovations.

SHAPIRO: Dietrich is an MIT-educated engineer and a former nuclear submarine commander. He's now working to bring new technology to Homeland Security's clients like the Coast Guard, the Secret Service and Border Patrol. As part of his job, he collects crazy ideas from all over and asks whether they might not actually be so crazy after all.

Mr. DIETRICH: Roughly 10 percent of our money is spent on doing these really kind of really far-out things, where we get ideas from all over the place - from universities, from labs, from business.

SHAPIRO: From Bond movies?

Mr. DIETRICH: Could be.

SHAPIRO: For example, Bond's telephone was never just for talking.

Mr. LLEWELYN: (as Q) It also includes a fingerprint scanner and a 20,000- volt security system. And this, I'm particularly proud of - the remote control for your car.

SHAPIRO: In the real world, Dietrich is working on cell phones that could signal when biological or chemical weapons have just been released into the air. He calls the technology Cell-All.

Mr. DIETRICH: Well, now all of a sudden, everywhere you have a group of people, you've got detectors. Do you need detectors in a stadium when nobody's there? No. But when it's packed with people, if Cell-All worked, you'd have thousands of detectors. In the Metro, you know, in the subway station, same thing.

SHAPIRO: Now, you say if Cell-All worked. Is that the kind of thing that could actually become reality?

Mr. DIETRICH: Actually when I first heard it, I said, oh God, this is a really risky one. You know, I'm not sure about this one. But the more we've dug into it, the more it looks like it really will work.

SHAPIRO: Another project Dietrich is working on would patch breached levees, like the ones that caused the flooding in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. He showed us a video illustrating the plan.

(Soundbite of helicopters)

Mr. DIETRICH: Here we have two helicopters that bring in a - just like a long balloon, like clowns use to make balloon animals. But this one is much longer, much bigger, must stronger and it's inflated, if you will, with water. So as it inflates, the flow of water that's going through the levee breech forces it against the in-place stanchions, and now it is sealing off the levee.

SHAPIRO: Long before the Department of Homeland Security even existed, the CIA had its own office known as America's Q. It's officially called the Office of Technical Services. Bob Wallace was its director until he retired a few years ago.

Mr. BOB WALLACE (Former Director, Office of Technical Services, CIA): Q certainly symbolized the power and the importance of technical equipment used by officers, used by agents, and used by spies.

SHAPIRO: Wallace is a devoted Q fan and author of the new book, "Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA's Spytechs from Communism to Al-Qaeda." We talked to the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., and Wallace told me Q's technologies aren't necessarily the sorts of things you'll find in the real CIA labs.

Mr. WALLACE: Many of the scenes in the movies show Q demonstrating various equipment. And much of the equipment has an explosive characteristic about it.

(Soundbite of movie)

Mr. LLEWELYN: (as Q) A pen - this is a class-4 grenade. Three clicks arms the four-second fuse, another three disarms it.

MR. DALTON: (as James Bond) How long did you say the fuse was?

Mr. LLEWELYN: (as Q) Oh, grow up, 007.

Mr. WALLACE: James Bond wouldn't last five minutes as an operations officer in the clandestine world. If you take your espionage learning from James Bond movies, it is about assassination and seduction. Well, the world of Q in actual espionage is all about information and communications.

SHAPIRO: Wallace says when the first few Bond films hit theaters, the Soviets paid close attention to Q's tools.

Mr. WALLACE: The KGB commented to our folks in the past that they looked at these as possible indications of what the British service and the Americans had in store for them.

SHAPIRO: Really?

Mr. WALLACE: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: The whole time we were talking, Wallace had a briefcase on the table in front of him - just an ordinary briefcase, one might say.

(Soundbite of movie)

Mr. LLEWELYN: (as Q) An ordinary black leather case with 20 rounds of ammunition here and here.

SHAPIRO: Wallace's didn't carry ammunition but, of course, it was not just an ordinary briefcase.

Mr. WALLACE: It is a briefcase that has a secret compartment. And Ari, I'm sure that you can quickly...

SHAPIRO: I don't want to...

Mr. WALLACE: ...find the secret compartment.

SHAPIRO: Do I just unsnap these?

Mr. WALLACE: Sure, go ahead. I don't believe you can break it.

SHAPIRO: I'm afraid I'm going to break it.

Mr. WALLACE: I will...

SHAPIRO: Is it that, behind that?

Mr. WALLACE: Yes, it is. And...

SHAPIRO: Oh my God.

Mr. WALLACE: ...there it is.

SHAPIRO: And so...

Mr. WALLACE: You can see you can stash quite a number of papers behind that false backing.

SHAPIRO: Now, I don't mean to be rude, but it looks like you have a dead rat in your briefcase.

Mr. WALLACE: I do have a dead rat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLACE: It's actually not a dead rat; it is a freeze-dried rat.

SHAPIRO: Oh, pardon me.

Mr. WALLACE: And inside the rat is going to be a real nice cavity where we can - the cavity is actually the whole length of the body.

SHAPIRO: The abdomen of...

Mr. WALLACE: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...the freeze-dried rat.

Mr. WALLACE: Yeah. So you can put a lot of money in there; you can put contact instructions; you can put a one-time pad for covert communications inside the rat. There's enough capacity for it.

SHAPIRO: Agents would coat the rodent with Tabasco so stray cats wouldn't pick it up before the spy did, then they'd drop it off in a gutter.

On the higher-tech end of things, Q supplied Bond with enough flashy vehicles to fill a parking garage.

(Soundbite of movie)

Mr. LLEWELYN: (as Q) BMW, behind the headlights, stinger missiles.

Mr. DALTON: (as James Bond) Excellent. Just the thing for unwinding after a rough day at the office.

Mr. LLEWELYN: (as Q) Need I remind you, 007, that you have a license to kill, not to break the traffic laws.

SHAPIRO: The cars the CIA worked on, Wallace says, did not contain stinger missiles.

Mr. WALLACE: We frequently modified them to be able to hide people or material in as you wanted to transit certain borders.

SHAPIRO: Today, Wallace says, spy craft is everywhere. Even baby monitors evolved from clandestine eavesdropping tools.

Mr. WALLACE: Cameras in phones - remarkable technology. You know, we worked very hard and spent a lot of money in the 1970s to develop the first text-messaging systems.

SHAPIRO: They were primitive but in concept, Wallace says, those text messages the CIA labored over in the '70s were exactly the same thing that teenagers send all around the world today.

(Soundbite of James Bond theme music)

SHAPIRO: Our feature on Q was produced by Ayman Abja(ph) Malone.

(Soundbite of James Bond Theme Music)

SHAPIRO: This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.

(Soundbite of James Bond Theme Music)

SHAPIRO: I'm Shapiro, Ari Shapiro.

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