Fargo

by Ralph Simpson, History San Jose, February 2012

Fargo building, San Francisco
The Fargo Offices, San Francisco
Fargo was founded in 1950 by Leo Jones, an early pioneer in the development of electronic surveillance and countermeasures devices. Based in San Francisco, Fargo sold its products exclusively to law enforcement organizations around the world.

In the early days, Fargo developed the use of crystal elements to act as spike and contact microphones. Normal conversations in a room could be picked up by these tiny, hidden microphones which were placed against a hard surface to pick up any audio vibrations. These vibrations compressed the crystal element in the microphone, causing an electrical signal which could be sent by wire to another location for eavesdropping or recording.

Jones also designed a body wire using the “peanut tube,” a small and inexpensive two-inch radio tube resembling a peanut and specifically designed to bypass a De Forest patent. Another early clandestine microphone was the microphone in a standard telephone handset. Even when the telephone is not in use, the microphone could pick up conversations in the room and send them to the eavesdropper, who had tapped into the phone line.

Leo H. Jones/Fargo Office Sign
Fargo sign, part of The Perham Collection of Early Electronics
In this time frame, transistors and miniaturization just started to become widely available, which dramatically changed the technology options for surveillance. Jones was able to cleverly exploit these advances in his new designs. “Fargo” became the industry standard as well as the generic name for these types of surveillance devices, just as Xerox would later become synonymous with copiers.1

In 1952, a bug was found inside the U.S. Embassy Seal in the ambassador’s office in Moscow. This example of Russian eavesdropping was famously presented by Henry Cabot Lodge at a United Nations General Assembly in 1960, which helped to kick off the fledgling industry of countermeasures devices. These are the devices used to detect wireless transmitters or other surveillance apparatus.

The seal was a gift from Russian schoolchildren to the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, Averill Harriman, in July of 1946. It was carved of wood and had a resonant cavity with a rather simple but effective microphone which could be stimulated from an outside radio signal. The microphone did not need an electrical source or transmitter and was only activated when the Soviets wanted to listen in to a conversation, making normal countermeasure sweeps ineffective. This device was in use for six years before it was accidentally discovered.2

Fargo was already designing and manufacturing surveillance and countermeasures apparatus, but Jones decided to separate these into two companies. Fargo continued with the surveillance business, and, in 1965, Saber Laboratories was formed to provide countermeasures equipment. Leo Jones was the founder and president of both Fargo and Saber Laboratories.

Fargo Images and Products from the Perham Collection of Early Electronics at History San Jose

References:
1Lee Lapin, How to Get Anything on Anybody Book 3, page 394, Intelligence Here publishers, 2003, ISBN 1880231131
2NSA website, Great Seal Exhibit, http://www.nsa.gov/_root/flash/museum/exhibits/cold_war/coldwar_03.swf