25 Jan 2013
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Finding Microdots With a Nivellator

Do you know the difference between a microphotograph and a photomicrograph?  You won't make much of a spy if you don't!  A photomicrograph is just a picture taken through a microscope.  But a microphotograph!  Also called a "microdot," it was the essence of spystuff, at least until steganography came into its own in the internet age. 

Marco Polo, If You Can

William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote a spy adventure series whose protagonist, Blackford Oakes, found himself immersed in many of the historical turning points of the cold war.  In Marco Polo, If You Can,  Oakes piloted the U2 spy plane that was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.  Although Wikipedia relates the accepted historical version of this incident, I like Buckley's much better, and who knows? there may be something to it.  I read this book about 30 years ago, and probably a couple of times since then.  (If you trust me for reading suggestions, this book and Who's On First are my two favorites in the series.)  Until this very day, Marco Polo has held an enduring mystery for me.

With tweezers, you insert the negative in the dot after coating the back side with an invisible colorless adhesive, to keep the negative from falling right through. Then you go back—the trickiest part—and type lightly over the hole. But there is a slight residual protuberance. Sometimes you can feel it with your finger. Other times you have to slide the paper through a nivellator, calibrated to measure differences in thickness up to one one thousandth of a millimeter."

One character in the story was suspected of sending stolen information to the Kremlin via microdots, and a character in the book explains how to find the microphotograph.  According to him, perhaps you can feel it or, if not, use a nivellator to find it.  A nivellator!  Of course!  Why didn't I think of that?  When I read the book for the first time, I assumed that I could look up "nivellator" in the "dictionary," a large "book" with "pages" that listed words in alphabetical order.  (I had a "dictionary."  Still do, in fact, in a box somewhere.)  But...  No "nivellator."  If I told you that the word "gullible" isn't in the dictionary, you might be skeptical.  But "nivellator"?  Maybe you'll trust me on this one. 

Decades passed.

Along Came the Internet

Every few years I would think to search for "nivellator."  Surely, in an article about a spy museum, perhaps, or a memoir, someone would have used the word.  Nope!  My final lookup, just a little while ago, provided no definition or explication, just a quote from the Buckley book.  So much for the internet.

Ace Hardware to the Rescue

The mystery of the nivellator would no doubt have rested unresolved indefinitely were it not for my need to move art from one wall to another.  It was actually a pair of two-hook arts, which required some precision in placing the hook pairs on the wall so the arts would be parallel vertically and at equal height.  Off to the local Ace hardware store to purchase a bubble level.  Off the bubble level came the bilingual descriptive tag,
Tag on Ace Hardware aluminum level And there you have it!  The mystery of the nivellator, resolved by a tag on a tool.  It's just a level!  If I had more Spanish (or more tools), I might have learned this decades ago. In Spanish, a "level" is a "nivel," or so asserts the bilingual tag.

The Lexicon

Two of my favorite authors, Buckley and Jack Vance, tend to use obscure yet interesting words, some of which are of doubtful existence, especially in the case of Vance.  I'm not alone in finding their vocabulary intriguing; there are published Lexicons for each author.  Buckley's seems to be readily purchasable on-line. When I got my copy, I'm sure the very first word I looked for, fruitlessly, was "nivellator."  Today, thanks to Ace hardware and a couple of misplaced arts, I know how to find those microdots they keep sending me from that PO Box in East Berlin.

"Long Black Veil"
The Beau Brummels




I have a Boulder Yellow Cab T-shirt, shown here from the rear.

Another garment of mysterious provenance.

Boulder Yellow Cab T-shirt
© 2013
Richard Factor

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