Pigeon-guided missiles

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Military Times revisits the bizarre WWII invention of Burrhus Frederic Skinner.

Behavioural analyst, author, innovator, poet, social philosopher, and Harvard professor of psychology, Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990) was certainly a highly influential jack-of-all-trades. He invented the operant conditioning chamber, the cumulative recorder, the teaching machine, and pioneered his own scientific philosophy, ‘Radical Behaviorism’. What he is perhaps less revered for, is his development of a rather unique and potentially calamitous missile guidance system during WWII.

The US Navy was in need of a weapon capable of countering the formidable German Bismarck class battleships. Missile technology did already exist; the problem was that the guidance systems were too large and too primitive for the missiles to be considered effective. While the military desperately worked on these rudimentary electronic guidance systems, Skinner, keen to be of service, sought government funding for a top secret project to overcome the problem. His idea sounded simple: he would train pigeons to guide the missiles, tapping a target on a screen with their beaks to control the direction.

Skinner at Harvard circa 1950

The nose cone of the missile would be split into three compartments, with a lens projecting an image of the intended target onto a screen at the front. A pigeon in each compartment, trained by operant conditioning to recognise the target, would peck at it continually. Pecks to the centre of the screen caused the missile to fly straight, whilst off- centre pecks tilted the screen which would alter the missile’s course.

At first, and to Skinner’s frustration, government funding for the project did not come flooding in. However, after a shaky start, the National Defense Research Committee overcame initial scepticism to contribute $25,000 to the cause. This seemed to pay off. Test runs were successful; the pigeons pecked reliably, holding the missiles on course even when falling at a rapid pace, undaunted by the terrifying noise of war. Project Pigeon seemed to be taking off. In fact the pigeons were so compliant in his experiments and so rapid in their general behaviour that Skinner vowed never again to work with rats.

Yet despite this early success, Skinner could not get his project to be regarded with the respect he felt it deserved by the necessary authorities. And so, on 8 October 1944, the programme was discontinued. The military were of the opinion that ‘further prosecution of this project would seriously delay others which in the minds of the Division have more immediate promise of combat application’. Namely (although unbeknownst to Skinner), Radar.

Skinner was bitter. ‘Our problem was no one would take us seriously,’ he complained. One of the arguments against his project was that perhaps, as a professor and student of human behaviour, he should have second-guessed: few people would feel confident in the knowledge that, guiding their 1,742kg weapons of mass destruction was not a highly complex electronics system, but three brainwashed pigeons frantically pecking at a rudimentary screen.

Pigeon-Guided Missiles and 49 Other Ideas That Never Took Off is the new book by James Moore and Paul Nero, published by The History Press on 26 September. It is available on Amazon, ISBN: 978-0752459905

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