How Mission Impossible Made Tracking Technology Seem Possible in the 1960s


How feasible was the tracking technology depicted in 1960s spy movies, such as Mission Impossible?

In some scenes of these movies, the protagonists attach a small device to the antagonists’ car and track its location on a map using another device. Assuming this technology did not rely on GPS, which was not widely available until the 1990s, what kind of mechanism could it have used? Could it have emitted a radio signal that was triangulated by multiple receivers? How accurate and reliable would such a system have been?


Spy movies are known for their thrilling plots, exotic locations, and high-tech gadgets. One of the most common devices used by the secret agents in these films is a tracking device, which allows them to locate and follow their enemies or allies. But how realistic is this technology, especially in the 1960s, when GPS was not yet available for civilian use?

The answer is not very. While the concept of tracking a moving object using radio signals is not impossible, the implementation and accuracy of such a system would have been very challenging and unreliable in the 1960s.

One of the main problems is the size and power of the tracking device. In order to emit a radio signal that can be detected by a receiver, the device would need a battery and an antenna. The smaller the device, the weaker the signal and the shorter the battery life. In the movies, the tracking devices are often shown as tiny and discreet, which would make them very hard to detect and track in reality.

Another problem is the interference and noise of the radio environment. In the 1960s, there were many sources of radio signals, such as TV and radio stations, military and civilian communications, and natural phenomena. These signals would create a lot of clutter and confusion for the receiver, making it difficult to isolate and identify the signal from the tracking device.

A third problem is the method of locating the tracking device. In the movies, the agents often use a map or a screen that shows the exact position of the device in real time. This implies that the receiver has access to some kind of coordinate system, such as latitude and longitude, and can calculate the distance and direction of the device from the receiver. However, this would require either a network of multiple receivers that can triangulate the signal, or a sophisticated algorithm that can account for the curvature of the earth, the speed and direction of the device, and the effects of terrain and buildings on the signal propagation.

In the 1960s, neither of these methods was readily available or feasible. The first method would require a lot of coordination and synchronization among the receivers, which would be difficult to achieve without a central authority or a reliable communication system. The second method would require a lot of computing power and data, which would be beyond the capabilities of the devices at the time.

Therefore, the tracking technology depicted in 1960s spy movies, such as Mission Impossible, was not very feasible or realistic. It was more of a plot device than a scientific fact, and it served to create suspense and excitement for the viewers. However, it also inspired the development of more advanced and accurate tracking systems in the later decades, such as GPS, which is now widely used for navigation, security, and entertainment purposes.

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