World's First Button Camera, 1950's
Believe it or not, the very first covert button cameras where used by intelligence agencies in the 1950's. However, they could only do a still photo snap shot and were so bulky, you could only wear them with a heavy coat. Today's modern day button cameras with portable pocket digital video recorders is a far cry from what top investigators and intelligence agents could use in the 1950's. But if you had one of these in the 1950's you were high tech and very cutting edge. They were custom developed by the CIA the KGB as well as British Intelligence. (This one was likely made by the CIA) If you were a private investigator and had one, you were very rare! Even if you could afford one which might set you back the average of what was then several month's pay, finding one was quite another matter. The button hides a lens which screws onto a subminiature camera. There was a thick cord that ran into a pocket. You simply placed your hand in your coat pocket and pulled the lever which then took a still photo. They were just too bulky to use without a coat. However, in the 1960's the CIA developed one that worked in a belt buckle. (Today, there is a belt buckle video camera/DVR built into one small unit as well as one built into a watch, a pen and eyeglasses.) Video surveillance button cameras were simply not on the market nor made in this time period as the technology to do that was just not there. There were hundreds of these still cameras used mainly by federal intelligence agents such as CIA and KGB agents. The camera itself, which was very very small for it's time period, took 16 mm subminiature film. No one knows exactly how many of these button cameras where made but they are very rare today. It's taken us five years to locate this one. When in Austin, Texas be sure to come by and see the Spy And Private-Eye Museum in person!

Above is the inside of the button cover lens. It screws onto the subminiature camera lens. Notice the back side of the center of the button and the strings coming in. When the hidden lever was pushed in, the strings would quickly pull down the doors on the center of the button and a snapshot taken at the same time.

Once screwed on, you can see from the back that the button mount was like a plate that fit over the front of the camera. The cord provided the lever that went into the pocket to take the covert snap shot. A trench coat had to be modified with buttons and holes in the back to bring the cord into the trench coat pocket.

Used by intelligence agencies during the cold war in the 1950's and 1960's, the world's first button camera could only take still shots and was so bulky, it could only be used with a heavy coat. The actual button was a plate that screwed onto the camera lens of a small subminiature camera. The button camera plate had a cord that ran into the agent's pocket. Using this method, when an agent wanted to take a still photo, he simply placed his hand in the pocket and pushed the lever.The center part of the button would quickly slide away to expose the camera lens and the shutter would open. Since the exposure was done on small subminiature 16 MM film, one had to develop the film before one could see the results of the efforts. Most agents had their own film developing kits. The coat used had to have the button camera installed on it with matching buttons as well as a hole torn inside the coat pocket so the camera lever could be installed. No one knows for sure exactly how many of these were around but it's rather rare to find one today. They were custom made by intelligence agencies such as the CIA. Crude by today's standards, these were highly rare, custom made and state-of-the-art in the 1950s. Quite different from the equipment in use today by investigators, law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Listen And Watch A Short Video!

Listen to and watch a short video with Ralph Thomas And Gene Poteant, retired CIA agent; talk about covert cameras of the 1950's. This film clip was originally made for the TNT program, The Company. The part about the first button cameras is after the first part which displays and describes the first cigarette lighter cameras. Apple Quicktime Player needed to view film clip.

Close-up Of The subminiature Camera And The Button Plate Mount.

The Button Plate Mount From Both Sides. The second lever let you adjust the aperture of the camera itself.

Close-Up Of The Pocket Lever

The pocket lever was simply that. A hidden lever that went into one's pocket. The cord was concealed under one's coat that went directly to the button camera. Notice the long lever on the plate. This would adjust the aperture setting for the camera lens. The outer lever is the lever that would take the snap shot. When it was pressed in, two small doors would slide open within the inner circle part of the button and the camera would take the snap shot. This was quite a high tech camera concealment method in it's time period. If you look closely at the photos above showing the inside of the cover plate, you can see the strings coming out into the underside of the button camera that actually made all this work. It was like a pulley. There isn't any doubt they needed constant adjustment of the tension on the strings.

Close-up Animation Of The Button Camera In Action

To the right is a close-up of the button camera in action. The button camera plate attaches to the camera which is photographed elsewhere. With the lever hidden in one's pocket, you simple push down on the lever and the door opens inside the button and the camera shutter opens to take a snap shot. ONce the snap shot is taken, the button doors close again leaving everything just as it was. Upon extremely close inspection from the outside of a coat, the only thing one might be able to see is the faint line running through the middle of the button. Agents were very picky to make sure the coat matched the button camera along with all the buttons and the treads running through the middle of the button. Remember, it they got caught, especially in Russia' they could have been charged with a crime of spying which could carry the death penalty. But the stock staple in intelligence was obtaining photographic evidence and that is what agents did. It was very difficult as they were often watched by the other side when they left their embassy. With the button camera, they were able to take photographs covertly even with others watching them as long as they were not too close.


The subminiature Camera Apart To View How The Film Loaded.

These old button cameras were typically paired with a 1950's trench coat. Since they fit rather loosely, it would completely hide the bulkiness of the camera behind the button and the pockets were large pockets one could easily and quickly stick one's hand into to activate the lever. Today we tend to associate the trench coat with the 1950's and 1960's spy and/or private-eye .However, in those days everyone wore them. When you went out in the cold with one on in a big city, you quickly blended in with thousands of others wearing the same thing. The above photos are photos of typical trench coats of the 1950's. Like men's suites, double breasted button coats where in.

The early button cameras were quite effective for covertly taking snap shots on the streets of foreign countries which had become the mainstay of federal intelligence agencies. No one is exactly sure which federal intelligence agency developed this technology first but they very quickly discovered them and copied each other. As soon as British Intelligence noted the button camera that the CIA had developed, they started making some for their agents. It wasn't long until the KGB caught on to them. Or was it the CIA that discovered them being used by KGB agents? Who knows!

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