Charles Fraser-Smith, gadget-designing genius

Have you ever looked at your hairbrush and thought: ‘I could definitely turn that into a hiding place for a map and saw’? Notsomuch? Well, enter the world of Charles Fraser-Smith, a mild-mannered clothing supply clerk who, during World War II, invented gadgets and gizmos that would make James Bond jealous. Described at school by his teachers as ‘scholastically useless’ (nice, ed) Fraser-Smith was an exceptional maker, who went on to change the face of the British war effort with his incredible inventions.

In his fake day job at the clothing supply office, Fraser-Smith was secretly working for the Special Operations Executive (and MI6 and MI9), a secretive bunch who worked undercover to sabotage the enemy at every turn. Fraser-Smith was put to work transforming everyday objects into weapons, places to store documents and tools to help prisoners-of-war escape from camps in Germany. Here are just some of his amazing inventions.

Illustration: Hannah Bailey

The Hidden Map

You might not want to blow your nose on this handkerchief. A map drawn onto a cloth handkerchief with invisible ink, but how can you see it? Well, you could always wee on it. In fact, that’s exactly what you had to do to make the map appear.

Careful How You Tie Your Shoelaces

Because, you know, there’s an entire Gigli saw hidden in there that can cut through metal. No double bows please.

Itching Powder

Added to the life vests of U‑Boat crews through the French company that made them. Utter genius. *itch, itch, scratch*

Paper Chase

Paper laced with a magnesium compound that bursts into flames and disappears completely? Check. Paper that can be eaten to destroy all evidence? Check. Indestructible paper that can be written on while damp? Check, and it’s a wrap.


Illustration: Hannah Bailey

Feeling a bit peckish?

We wouldn’t normally recommend this, but tuck into this tube of toothpaste. It’s not about minty fresh breath but instead about the high-calorie food that’s in there. Perfect for prisoners-of-war to carry with them during an escape attempt.

Which Way?

Lost? Well you could always consult that used match of yours. You know, the one containing a magnetised needle to find north? Just let it float in a puddle and follow its lead.

Hidey Holes

We couldn’t even begin to list all of Fraser-Smith’s ideas, but here are a few of his best hiding stuff inventions: chess pieces and playing card packs with secret compartments, shaving brushes with the thread the wrong way round so you had to open it clockwise rather than anti-clockwise, torches with one fake battery as a secret compartment, pens containing a compass and so on and so on. What a brilliant mind!

Illustration: Hannah Bailey

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Words:Caroline Pattenden. Illustration: Hannah Bailey