The Origins of the 007 Prefix

Article by Jim Wright

“The license to kill for the Secret Service, the double-o prefix, was a great honor. It had been earned hardly. It brought Bond the only assignments he enjoyed, the dangerous ones.”

         — Ian Fleming, Dr. No

No Time to Die, the upcoming James Bond movie, marks the arrival of a new 007. Captain Marvel star Lashana Lynch plays a British MI6 agent named Nomi, adding a new star to the Bond pantheon — and a black female 007 at that. She apparently inherited his iconic number after he resigned/retired at the end of the 24th Bond outing, Spectre, in 2015.

In “No Time to Die,” Lashana Lynch plays Nomi, the next 007. MGM/Universal Pictures/EON

The designation is not to be taken lightly. “007” just might be the most famous number in popular culture. 

The question is: How did Bond creator Ian Fleming come up with those three numerals for his celebrated code number? The answer is tangled in a knot of theories, speculation and hearsay. Even before the age of fake news and any-rumor-goes social media, it was difficult to separate conjecture from fact. Here’s the story.

Depending on what you read, the inspiration for 007 was the 16th Century English explorer John Dee, the first Duke of Marlborough, an 1897 Rudyard Kipling story about an American locomotive, or a British bus line with Fleming connections at both ends. And that’s just for starters.

Some Bond fans have claimed Fleming chose 007 because it’s the international dialing code for Russia or the ZIP Code for a section of Washington, D.C., that spies call home. Others have speculated the inspiration was Fleming’s “hotel room number, which was 1007, but the 1 had worn off.” 

In the docudrama “Goldeneye,” Ian Fleming went to hotel room 1007 — with a wayward 1. ITV.  

In short, just about any number that includes “007” has provided fodder for the legendary code name. 

It’s time to unpack the apocrypha and then examine the theory that makes the most sense — the one in Ian Fleming’s own words.

A Bit of Background

When James Bond made his debut in Fleming’s 1953 thriller Casino Royale, so did his code name. The name of the third chapter: “The Number 007.”

In the novel, two British intelligence officers discuss who to send to defeat the villainous Le Chiffre (“The Cypher”) at baccarat in a casino in northern France. The answer: “One of the Double O’s — I guess 007,” Fleming wrote. “He’s tough, and M thinks there may be trouble with those gunmen of Le Chiffre’s.”

The “00” status means, famously, that a British Secret Service agent has a license to kill. As Bond tells René Mathis, his French counterpart in Casino Royale, ‘For those two jobs I was awarded a Double O number in the Service. Felt pretty clever and got a reputation for being good and tough. A double O number in our Service means you’ve had to kill a chap in cold blood in the course of some job.”
   
Michael L. VanBlaricum, president of the Ian Fleming Foundation, says that “‘007’ was not commonly used in popular culture until the first EON Productions James Bond Film, Dr. No, was released in 1962.”
   
“If you look at the covers of the paperback versions of the novels before the film,” you see that ‘007’ is not used,” VanBlaricum says, adding that Fleming used the term “007” only four times in his first Bond novel, Casino Royale.

“I think the name ‘James Bond’ is what conjures up the mystique. The designation ‘007’ is part of the spy culture, or so the author wanted people to believe,” he adds. “It is also a great shorthand for advertising for the books, the movies and the products. Hence, it has become synonymous with ‘James Bond’.”

Indeed, it was only after Sean Connery helped make “James Bond” a household name that stories about how Fleming chose 007 started coming out of the woodwork.

When the cinema classic Goldfinger arrived in 1965, the mystique around “007” mushroomed. 

The Reader’s Digest, for example, reported in an October 1965 article that “the numbers double-0-seven were the last three digits in his [Fleming’s] literary agent’s telephone number.” The claim appears dubious since Fleming had no reason to hire an agent before he began writing the Bond novels, and he worked out his own deal with publisher Jonathan Cape.
   

The “007” origin myths soon began to mushroom.

Meet John Dee
    

In 1968, author Donald McCormick published John Dee, Scientist, geographer, astrologer and secret agent to Elizabeth I. In the book, McCormick, writing under the pseudonym Richard Deacon, claimed that the Renaissance man was the original 007.
    
McCormick called Dee “a roving James Bond of Tudor times”  who signed his royal communiqués with a secret code that signaled to the queen “the letter was from him and no one else: For your eyes only. The two circles symbolize John Dee’s own eyes as the eyes of Queen Elizabeth. The 7 is the alchemist’s lucky number.”
    
McCormick also asserted: “It was when the author of the Bond novels, Ian Fleming, was reading a biography of Dee that he came upon the 007 figures. This was perfect for his character. This is what signified that Bond was licensed to kill.”
   
In Secret Manchester, authors Phil Page and Ian Littlechilds go a step further: “But John Dee [who served as warden at what is now Manchester Cathedral] … always authenticated his signature with the code 007 and, on a visit to the cathedral, Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, adopted the formula.”

16th-Century English explorer John Dee was purported to be the inspiration for 007. Ashmolean Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In true-whisper-down-the-lane fashion, the book’s anecdote resurfaced in a letter to the editor in The Guardian, which then became the source for a similar explanation in a letter in New Scientist.
   
“The only problem with the John Dee story is I’ve never been able to find any evidence for it,” says Katie Birkwood, rare books librarian for the Royal College of Physicians, London. “It’s just not true.”
  
Birkwood should know. She researched a major Dee exhibition at the college and found no Dee letters signed 007.

Author Richard McCormick claimed that John Dee, a 16th Century renaissance man, used the 007 symbol to communicate with the Queen of England. Reprinted from the book John Dee, published by Frederick Miller Ltd.

“This story has totally taken off,” Birkwood says. “It’s so beguiling to think that there’s this link back to Elizabethan England, but there’s no proof.” 


Other Fanciful Theories
   
* Some have claimed that  007 was inspired by the ISD (international subscriber dialing) code for Russia. But the concept of country codes didn’t emerge until the early 1960s — a decade after Fleming coined “007.
  
* Similarly, the theory that Fleming chose 007 because it’s the 20007 ZIP Code for the Georgetown section of the U.S. capital is inherently bogus because the U.S. did not adopt ZIP Codes until 1963. (Ditto the speculation that 007 comes from the first three numerals in the Zip Code for parts of Puerto Rico.)
    
* As for the “007” bus route story, which made a splash around the arrival of the 24th Bond movie, Spectre, call it speculation.Yes, one terminus of the 007 bus route is Victoria Coach Station, near Fleming’s old flat on Ebury Street in London. And yes, Fleming had a cottage in St. Margaret’s Bay roughly six miles from the bus’s route in Kent. The rest, however, appears to have been invented by… the bus company.
    
The company quoted National Express 007 coach driver Nathan Rushton, who jumps deftly from conclusion to conclusion in a publicity release.
    
“The fact Fleming was familiar with both ends of the route and not just the Kent side proves beyond doubt he used the service number to name the spy,” said Rushton. “People in Kent have always believed James Bond was named after this local service, and I think the fact Ian Fleming also previously lived so close to the coach station at Victoria proves it—it’s just too much of a coincidence otherwise.” Or not.

A British bus company claims that Fleming got his 007 from one of its routes. The National Express Group.

Rudyard Kipling and .007
  
The British author’s tale about a tank engine may have been the first appearance of 007, according to several sources, including the James Bond 007 Museum in Nybro, Sweden. According to the museum’s website, “Fleming had picked up number 007 from the title of a novel by the famous British writer and Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling (best known for The Jungle Book).”
    
Kipling did write a 6,100-word short story called “.007,” first published in the August 1897 issue of Scribner’s magazine. The story begins: “A locomotive is, next to a marine engine, the most sensitive thing man ever made; and No. .007, besides being sensitive, was new. The red paint was hardly dry on his spotless bumper-bar, his headlight shone like a fireman’s helmet.”

Rudyard Kipling’s short story “.007” appeared in the August 1897 issue of Scribner’s. Courtesy of Jim Wright.

Decimal point notwithstanding, the “.007” in the title is the only connection to Fleming. That has not quelled the speculation.
  
“You just can’t help but imagine how these early stories may have been an influence on Mr. Fleming,” one fan wrote on the James Bond Enthusiasts’ Facebook Group page.

About that Hotel Room Number
   

The theory that 007 was based on Fleming’s “hotel room number, which was 1007, but the 1 had worn off,” likely came from “Goldeneye: The Secret Life Of Ian Fleming.” The 1989 TV biopic about Fleming often took dramatic license, including a scene where Fleming is sent to kill an enemy agent staying in a hotel in Soho in New York City. The Room Number: 1007, but the 1 is hanging upside down so the number appears at first to be 007.   

Enter the Duke of Marlborough
 

Two decades ago, a theory appeared that posited that Fleming took the double-O part of 007 from the first Duke of Marlborough.
 
Fleming’s father was a friend of Winston Churchill’s, whose grandfather was the seventh duke of Marlborough. The first duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, is said to have given his spies a 00 code during the War of the Spanish Succession from 1701 to 1714. But the documentation for this assertion has not been found.

McCormick Strikes Again
   
Remember Donald McCormick, who wrote all the poppycock about the Renaissance man John Dee? McCormick also wrote similar folderal about the spy trade and claimed to know Ian Fleming extremely well from British Naval Intelligence during World War II and worked with Fleming on the Sunday Times of London’s foreign desk.
   
Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that In 1994 he wrote a biography of Fleming. It was called “17F,” after Fleming’s Naval Intelligence codename. The subtitle: “The definitive biography with important new material.”
   
According to author and blogger Jeremy Duns, who has researched Fleming McCormick and Dee, “… McCormick was a fraud. Between the facts that had already been set out in John Pearson’s biography [of Fleming] and a sprinkling of new but not especially significant information, McCormick’s biography contained several elaborate hoaxes about the life and work of Ian Fleming, all of which have been reported in creditable newspapers and books, and continue to be to this day.” 

The Horse’s Mouth
   

The trouble with all of these theories, even the most plausible ones, is that Fleming never mentioned any of them.

So how did he come up with 007? In an interview with Playboy magazine just before his death, Fleming supplied the answer, or two-thirds of it.
   
When the interviewer asked Fleming whether readers should take his “imaginative device of Bond’s permissive double-O prefix” so seriously, the thriller writer replied: “Well, though this was purely a fictional device to make Bond’s particular job more interesting, the double-O prefix is not so entirely invented as all that. I pinched the idea from the fact that, in the Admiralty, at the beginning of the war, all top-secret signals had the double-o prefix. This was changed subsequently for the usual security reasons, but it stuck in my mind, and I borrowed it for Bond and he got stuck with it.” 

The Likely Source of the Double-O Prefix
    

According to David Kahn’s monumental 1967 book The Codebreakers, the British had established a cryptanalysis bureau in Room 40 in the Old Buildings of the Admiralty during World War I that would “exert a direct and noticeable effect upon the course of history.”
    
Room 40 discerned the German Foreign office used a series of two-part codes designated by two zeros and two digits. As Kahn writes, the codes included  “0097, 0086, which was used for German missions in South America, 0064, used between Berlin and Madrid and perhaps elsewhere, 0053, and 0042.”

The Zimmermann telegram
   
Another double-O prefix code was 0075, which was vital to one of the great triumphs in British intelligence history. In 1917, code-breakers intercepted and decoded the infamous Zimmermann telegram, in which Germany told Mexico that if it joined any war against America, it would be rewarded with the territories of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
   
The furor over the telegram helped persuade the American public that it should send men over to Europe to fight. Kahn called cracking the 0075-coded telegram “the single most far-reaching and most important solution in history.”

This political cartoon depicts Germany trying to persuade Mexico to become its ally in Word War I. The infamous Zimmermann Telegram used the German 0075 code — one of the double-O codes that signify “top secret.” Public domain, courtesy of Jim Wright.


Making the Leap to 007
  
In his 2008 Fleming/Bond biography For Your Eyes Only, Fleming + Bond, author Ben Macintyre took the double-O prefix theory one step further. “The German diplomatic code used in the top-secret telegram was 0075; thereafter the double-zero code was attached to all highly classified documents,” Macintyre wrote. “To anyone versed in intelligence history, ‘007’ signified the highest achievement of British military espionage.”
  
That makes sense, but if so, why didn’t Fleming include the “7” in his explanation?
   
Andy Boyd, author of British Naval Intelligence Through the Twentieth Century,says he could not find examples of a double-O prefix being used to designate top-secret messages. But, he added, “a double-O abbreviation was (and is still) used to designate ‘immediate’ precedence for signal transmission as opposed to ‘priority’ or ‘routine. This would have appeared at the top of a signal text after the routing indicators. The ‘O’ designation rather than ‘I’ came from the term ‘Operational Immediate.’ Most Top-secret traffic, certainly that relevant to current operations, probably would have been sent ‘Immediate’ – hence ‘OO.’  Perhaps that is what Fleming was recalling.”

007 vs. 7777
   

Close readers of Fleming’s books are aware that Bond was not only 007, but (in You Only Live Twice) also 7777, so Fleming probably liked the number. But beyond that, Fleming’s predilection for numeral 7 remains a mystery.
   
The common thinking is Fleming went with 7 because it’s considered lucky and because it’s popular. Just look at the seven days of the week, the seven colors of the rainbow, the seven wonders of the world, the seven dwarfs and — in Bond’s case — the seven deadly sins. But Fleming apparently never explained why.
   
The numeral 7, especially the 7 of the double-O variety, proved to be a lucky number for Fleming and his secret agent.
   
Raymond Benson, the author of several James Bond novels, says: “I think Fleming just pulled it out of his hat because it sounded good to say ‘Double-O-Seven.’ It rolled off the tongue easily.”
  
But that would be speculation, and there’s been plenty of that already.

Incidental Intelligence

Jim Wright is the author of The Real James Bond, from Schiffer Publishing. You can learn more at www.realjamesbond.net. He would love to hear your theories about the origin of 007. Contact him at wrightjamesb@gmail.com.

Birdwatcher: ‘The Real James Bond’

8 thoughts on “The Origins of the 007 Prefix

  1. Jim
    A very interesting article. A most comprehensive review of the 007 theories. However, with respect, John Dee was not an explorer. Alchemist, mathematician, scholar, occultist, and possibly spy, yes. Explorer, no. A quick look at any books and articles, eg Wikipedia, will confirm that.
    Best
    Raki

      • Thanks so much Jim. The link to the RCP article on their 2016 Dee exhibition was interesting, and if I’d known about it, would have liked to go. I was aware that Dee famously travelled through Europe, and maybe that made him an “explorer”, and he certainly explored the occult and medicine, etc. My interest in Dee was sparked by living round the corner from where he lived beside the Thames between around 1565-1595 in Mortlake in South West London. He’s described as Mortlake’s most famous (past) resident. I also read Peter Ackroyd’s 1993 novel The House of Doctor Dee. Though a novel, Ackroyd is also a historian and tries to be accurate. Dee features in his history Thames: The Sacred River. As Dee was such an interesting and famous local character, I did read a fair amount about him at the time, and much later heard about the alleged 007 connection. The house no longer stands. Parts of it were supposed to have been later incorporated into the Mortlake Tapestry Works, which produced amongst other tapestries, the Raphael tapestries originally made for the Sistine Chapel, based on the cartoons now in the V&A. Turner, who painted The Fighting Temeraire which features in Skyfall, painted two well known river scenes from the spot – one in the Frick in NY and the other in the National Gallery of Washington, which I’m privileged to have seen in person. Ackroyd wrote a short bio of Turner in 2005. Dee is supposed to be buried under the chancel of our local church that was opposite his house, St Mary’s Mortlake. A block of flats is now on the site of the house, appropriately called John Dee House.
        Best
        Raki

  2. This an excellent and much-needed article, and should be required reading for many journalists and fans out there. It should prove very useful in the years to come.

  3. Pingback: Uncovering the Real James Bond – The Academy of Natural Sciences

  4. Having decided on “OO”; it may be that Fleming chose Seven, because it has two syllables; giving the whole a more pleasing: less staccato rhythm when pronounced.

Any Comments?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.