Mechanical pencils as tools of espionage and international provocation were actually (briefly) explored by the CIA and other intelligence organizations. Research into this once-promising weapons class has been mostly abandoned, however.
During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union developed mechanical pencils as so-called “Trojan weapons,” spurring a short but spirited “pencil race,” as it was known by those leading it.
The United States got things started by producing the Simmons J1, built by Raytheon, which was described as a “tactical and subversive writing device with state-of-the-art lead advancement system,” that would have the ability to “quickly undermine confidence in Soviet leadership by inducing poor penmanship.”
To do this, the sleek and stylish J1 – a beautiful writing instrument in its own right – contained a series of gyroscopes that would spin the pencil progressively off-balance the more it was used. Thus, members of the Central Committee – it was theorized – would not be able to pass notes during meetings, or share funny doodles of Nikita Khrushchev. This, in turn, would “foster a generalized malaise,” instigating weeks of depression and self-recrimination for “inability to properly engage/promulgate funny Khruschev [sic] doodle with comrades,” at which time the CIA would foment a coup and bring the communist party to its knees.
Unfortunately, Soviet leaders were quick to respond to the Simmons J1 by simply throwing them in the trash and using a different pencil.
In response, the KGB introduced the Pishi. The Pishi (“please write back”) was everything the Simmons J1 wasn’t: extremely heavy, ugly, and decidedly low-tech. Its strategy was simple. Once put into use, the pencil’s eraser would pop off and a noxious cloud of fart gas would swim out. The fart gas, it is rumored, was distilled from a collection of Stalin’s woolen trousers, on display at the Tretyakov Gallery.
Of course, the KGB hoped the Americans would be “fully grossed out” by the smell of Stalin’s farts, and, indeed, there is a February, 1971 photograph of Nixon and his cabinet, sitting in the Cabinet Room at the White House, looking fully grossed out. Nixon is shown holding what appears to be the Pishi, making notes. Henry Kissinger is recoiling in disgust, and Spiro Agnew’s eyes are watering.
On a poorly preserved audio recording from that meeting, one can even hear Kissinger saying, in his rumbling baritone, “whoever smelt it, dealt it.”
Though declassified documents from the time suggest the Soviets were awaiting “incapacitation of US leaders due to Stalin fart gas” in order to level a full nuclear assault, nothing of the sort ever took place.
The CIA then built the next generation Simmons, the J3, which was decidedly more offensive than the J1. Instead of gyroscopes, the J3 was fitted with a coaxially mounted, .30 caliber Browning machine gun on an open-topped, welded turret, and weighed nearly 1,300 pounds. As a writing implement, however, the J3 was difficult to use. In fact, CIA intelligence could only suggest that, perhaps, “it might go off during a Politburo skirmish,” diminishing leadership numbers, at which time the CIA could, perhaps, foment a coup and bring the communist party to its knees.
As a final salvo in the short-lived pencil race, the KGB built the R-7 Semyorka, a 280-ton intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to any American city. Described as “a large, mechanical pencil; no, really, that’s all,” for diplomatic reasons and to comply with conditions of the SALT I treaty, the R-7 Semyorka wasn’t a pencil in any sense of the word. Propaganda from the time shows an anonymous Soviet soldier standing on a scaffolding and pointing at the tip of the rocket, which had been painted black to look like lead.
“USSR reachs [sic] new heights in peaceful pencil research!” a caption trumpets, below the photo.
The pencil race was over, but the era of Trojan weapons had really just begun. From 1973 on, the CIA developed at least 10 versions of a cigar that would make Fidel Castro talk like Marlene Dietrich.