Hollow Nickel Spy Case

Brooke Clarke 2008


hollow Nickel Spy Case

Background
Microfilm
VIC Cipher
Spy Coins
Microdots
Related
Links


Background

In 1953 a paper boy accidentally received a hollow Jefferson Nickel as change from the wife of a Russian spy.  Inside was an encrypted  message.  The FBI worked on cracking the message for four years with no success.  It wasn't until 1957 when defecting Russian spy master Reino Hayhanen explained the complex paper and pencil system that the message was read.  Probably today the NSA could crack this code with super computers, it was quite formidable in it's day.

In 1962 Abel was traded for U-2 pilot Gary Powers.

The 1959 movie "The FBI Story" starring James Stewart includes this case.

Microfilm

The message was on microfilm with the corners cut off to fit into the nickel.  Note this is much larger than a microdot.

VIC Cipher

Although much more complex, the VIC cipher has some similarity to the one developed by Robert Patterson.

The cipher text on the microfilm was:
14546 36056 64211 08919 18710 71187 71215 02906 66036 10927
11375 61233 65634 39175 37378 31013 22596 19291 17463 23551
88527 10130 01767 12366 16669 97846 76559 50062 91171 72332
19262 69849 90251 11576 46121 24666 05902 19229 56150 23521
51911 78912 32939 31966 12096 12060 89748 25362 43167 99841
76271 31154 26938 77221 58343 61164 14349 01241 26269 71578
31734 27562 51236 12982 13089 66218 22577 09454 01216 71958
26948 89779 54197 11990 23881 48884 22165 62994 35449 41742
30267 77614 31565 30902 65812 16112 93312 71220 62369 12872
12458 19081 97117 70107 06391 71114 19459 59586 80317 07522
76509 11111 35990 32666 04411 51532 91184 23162 82011 19185
56110 28876 76716 03563 28222 31674 39023 07623 93513 97175
29816 95761 69483 32591 97696 34992 61105 95090 24092 71008
90061 14790 15154 14655 29011 57206 77195 01256 69250 62901
39179 71229 23299 84164 45900 42227 65853 17591 60182 06315
65812 01378 14566 87719 92507 79517 99551 82155 58118 67197
30015 70687 36201 56531 56721 26306 57135 91796 51341 07796
76655 62718 33588 91902 16224 87721 23519 23191 20665 45140
66093 60959 71521 02334 21212 51110 85227 98768 11125 05321
53152 14191 12166 12715 03116 43041 74827 72759 29130 21947
15764 96851 20618 22370 11391 43520 62297
There are ten groups of five numbers per line.
Twenty full lines for 200 groups plus a partial line of seven groups for a total of 207 groups.
There are 207 * 5 = 1035 numbers in the message.

There are some numbers that are questionable so this may have a few errors.

An English version of the Russian Cyrillic plain text was:
1. WE CONGRATULATE YOU ON A SAFE ARRIVAL. WE CONFIRM THE RECEIPT OF YOUR LETTER TO THE ADDRESS `V REPEAT V' AND THE READING OF LETTER NUMBER 1.

2. FOR ORGANIZATION OF COVER, WE GAVE INSTRUCTIONS TO TRANSMIT TO YOU THREE THOUSAND IN LOCAL (CURRENCY). CONSULT WITH US PRIOR TO INVESTING IT IN ANY KIND OF BUSINESS, ADVISING THE CHARACTER OF THIS BUSINESS.

3. ACCORDING TO YOUR REQUEST, WE WILL TRANSMIT THE FORMULA FOR THE PREPARATION OF SOFT FILM AND NEWS SEPARATELY, TOGETHER WITH (YOUR) MOTHER'S LETTER.

4. IT IS TOO EARLY TO SEND YOU THE GAMMAS. ENCIPHER SHORT LETTERS, BUT THE LONGER ONES MAKE WITH INSERTIONS. ALL THE DATA ABOUT YOURSELF, PLACE OF WORK, ADDRESS, ETC., MUST NOT BE TRANSMITTED IN ONE CIPHER MESSAGE. TRANSMIT INSERTIONS SEPARATELY.

5. THE PACKAGE WAS DELIVERED TO YOUR WIFE PERSONALLY. EVERYTHING IS ALL RIGHT WITH THE FAMILY. WE WISH YOU SUCCESS. GREETINGS FROM THE COMRADES. NUMBER 1, 3RD OF DECEMBER.

The plain text message also shown there has 767 characters, 919 characters if you count spaces.  When you compare this with the cipher text above you can see that the VIC  cipher method is very efficient.

Spy Coins

No Hole Modern Hollow Nickel
Spy Jefferson
                  Nickel (no hole) Tails
Spy Coin set Tail,
                  head, seperating ring
Tail side where the joint is located
Tail                                             Head                                                Sperating ring
Hollow Nickel with hole in the "R" in TRUST (Jefferson is looking at the hole)
"R"
                  hollow Nickel with 16mm Movie Film overlay
Reproduction
                  Hollow Nickel with Hole in "R"
 16 mm film could be used for message
Set with 0.017" driving pin and sewing needle (need thimble to use)

I got the hollow Jefferson Nickel from Spy-Coins.  Their stock Nickel does NOT have a hole in the "R" in TRUST but the actual coin in the case used the hole to allow opening the coin.  The Spy-Coins Nickel comes with a brass ring with a step that holds the heads side while allowing the tails side to fall through when the combination is slapped down on a hard surface a few times.  Without the hole it's impossible to tell the coin is hollow by visual inspection.

Spy-Coins also made the "R" version for the same price as the no hole version.  When dropped a few feet onto plywood the nickel makes a sound related to there being two parts, it sounds very different from the sharp tap noise of a solid Nickel.  Note the dates on these hollow Nickels is long after the cold war so there's no mistake that they are reproductions.

This coin, and probably the coin used in the Able case has no keying to control the rotation when the two halfs are assembled.  But it would take a conscious effort to check the relative rotation of heads vs. tails to see if it was wrong.

Film

I used <CTRL><Print Screen> on the cipher text above and pasted it into PAINT.  Then in Photoshop shrunk it to be about 16 mm wide.  That was too big to fit into the Nickel, it needs to be shrunk a little more.  But even with my old HP LaserJet 4050 set to 1200 dpi you can NOT read the message.  It may be that one of the newer LaserJet printers with higher resolution could actually make a readable small copy.  If you have a printer that can do it let me know.

There's a trade off between film speed and resolution.  What's called microfilm is very slow (needs a long Light * Time product to expose) and has very fine grain.  So to make the message back in the 1940s you would use a camera loaded with microfilm to photograph the message so it was scaled to fit the hollow part of the coin.  The actual message appears to be larger than what could be done using a 16 mm camera.  See Microdots below.

Microdots (Wiki)

By making the message very small it's easier to hide.  Developed by German professor Arnold Zapp. 

Some references about Microdots:
CIA Museum Tour - Center bay, left, bottom, right has small photos of front and back of microdot camera.  (Photo from Wiki by means of the CIA.)
MI5 - Spy Gadgets in World War II: Microdots -
Mark IV Microdat Mark IV Microdot camera
This may be a 10 exposure camera where the lens is rotated relative to the body.  When not in use the lens may be rotated to the 6:00 o'clock position in the photo so it's not over one of the 10 message locations.  The shutter is the lens cap.  Note that film grain size and exposure time are related.  Very fine grain films take a lot of light to expose so a simple hinged lens cap works fine.  The amount of reduction improves with a shorter focal length lens that may be why the lens appears to be recessed, i.e. to be closer to the film.

There was probably a formula for using this camera.  For example a 100 Watt lamp some distance from a book page sized subject.   This camera some distance from the page.  Open lens cap for some number of minutes.

I've read that a hypodermic needle that's been cut off to get a square end then sharpened to act like a cookie cutter is used to cut the image from the film.  But that would not be easy since you would need to be able to see the image and be sure you were not cutting off part of it.

This camera may have used a "bullet lens".
KGB Microdot Camera
German Microdot Camera held by MI5
KGB micro dot camera..  The multiple disks may each be a film holder.  Maybe the spy would unscrew one and move it behind the lens.  That could be done in the dark by feel.
German camera held by MI5

Bullet Lens

From what I've learned those cameras use a "bullet lens".  It's just a glass rod flat and square on one end and with a hemisphere on the other end.

Leeuwenhoek (Wiki) made his high magnification lenses simply from Borosilicate glass rods by pulling a fine strand then forming a ball.  I think you can do a similar thing to form a hemisphere on one end of a glass rod from a chemistry supply house (or eBay).  Snapping and grinding and polishing the other end would give you the flat end.  From there it should not be too hard to fabricate the camera body.  The key idea is no expensive optics are needed.

References

Wiki Microdot
The Microdot: History and Application, William White, ISBN 0932572197, 9780932572196
Subminiature Photography, William White, ISBN 0240517105, 9780240517100
The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing, David Kahn, ISBN 0684831309, 9780684831305
A G-man's Life: The FBI, Being "Deep Throat," and the Struggle for Honor in Washington, W. Mark Felt, John O'Connor, ISBN 1586483773, 9781586483777
Spy book: the encyclopedia of espionage, Norman Polmar, Thomas B. Allen, ISBN 0375702490, 9780375702495
Roosevelt's secret war: FDR and World War II espionage, Joseph E. Persico, ISBN 0375761268, 9780375761263
Thwarting Enemies at Home and Abroad: How to Be a Counterintelligence Officer, William R. Johnson, ISBN 1589012550, 9781589012554
The shadow war: German espionage and United States counterespionage in Latin America during World War II, Leslie B. Rout, John F. Bratzel, ISBN 0890932379, 9780890932377
Information Hiding: Steganography and Watermarking : Attacks and Countermeasures, Neil F. Johnson, Zoran Duric, Sushil Jajodia, ISBN 0792372042, 9780792372042
The puzzle palace: a report on America's most secret agency, James Bamford, ISBN 0140067485, 9780140067484
Secret intelligence agent, Harford Montgomery Hyde, ISBN 0094638500, 9780094638501
The Super Spies: More Secret, More Powerful Than the CIA, Andrew Tully, Published by Morrow, 1969
Secrets & spies: behind-the-scenes stories of World War II, Reader's Digest, 1964, 576 pages
Anatomy of spying, Ronald Seth, Dutton, 1963,
The making of a spy, Peter. Way, Raymond Edward Palmer, ISBN 0717281167, 9780717281169

Related

M-94 Cipher Wheels
Micro Photography
Nikon Labophot Microscope
Cryptography - Crypto Machines
FS-5000 Spy Radio

Links



CIA, Studies Archive Index, Number One From Moscow by David Kahn - This article is based on the author's booklet Two Soviet Spy Ciphers (Great Neck, N. Y.: David Kahn.   1960.   L/C Card No. 60-16799.)
FBI, History, Famous Cases, Rudolph Ivanovich Abel (Hollow Nickel Case) -
The VIC Cipher - used by Able in the Hollow Nickel Spy Case
Hand Ciphers - One-time Pad - The Cipher Classics (with downloads) - not used in this case, but probably by more modern spies
Wiki article on Abel - Hollow Nickel Case - Gary Powers - U2 - 1960 U2 Incident -


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