It’s 1943, and America desperately needs a way to reliably bomb targets in Nazi Germany. What do we do? For B.F. Skinner, noted psychologist and inventor, the answer was obvious: pigeons.
“During World War II, there was a grave concern about aiming missiles,” says Peggy Kidwell, a curator of Medicine and Science at the American History Museum. “Military officials really wanted to figure out how to aim them accurately,” Skinner approached the National Research Defense Committee with his plan, code-named “Project Pigeon.” Members of the committee were doubtful, but granted Skinner $25,000 to get started.
Skinner had already used pigeons in his psychological research, training them to press levers for food. An obsessive inventor, he had been pondering weapons targeting systems one day when he saw a flock of birds maneuvering in formation in the sky. “Suddenly I saw them as ‘devices’ with excellent vision and extraordinary maneuverability,” he said. “Could they not guide a missile? Was the answer to the problem waiting for me in my own back yard?”
Getting to work, Skinner decided on pigeons because of both their vision and unflappable behavior in chaotic conditions. He built a nose cone for a missile fitted with three small electronic screens and three tiny pigeon cockpits. Onto the screens was projected an image of the ground in front of the rocket.
“He would train street pigeons to recognize the pattern of the target, and to peck when they saw this target,” says Kidwell. “And then when all three of them pecked, it was thought you could actually aim the missile in that direction.” As the pigeons pecked, cables harnessed to each one’s head would mechanically steer the missile until it finally reached its mark. Alas, without an escape hatch, the birds would perish along with their target, making it a kamikaze mission.
Despite a successful demonstration of the trained pigeons, officials remained skeptical and eventually decided to terminate the project. Skinner, of course, would go on to become one of the country’s most influential psychologists, popularizing behaviorism, a conception of psychology that views behavior as a reaction to one’s environment.
He also kept inventing. As part of his research, Skinner designed a number of devices that used feedback processes to encourage learning. “After the war, he became very interested in machines for teaching people to do things,” says Kidwell. “In 1954, he had this machine for teaching arithmetic to young people, and in 1957 he designed a machine for teaching Harvard students basic natural sciences.”
Although Skinner’s machines were purely mechanical, the ideas he developed have been incorporated into many educational software programs in recent years, including some used in distance learning settings. “Many of his ideas are now most frequently seen by people as they have been incorporated in electronic testing. That programmed learning, where you have a series of questions, and responses, and based on the response you gave you are directed to the next question, is very much in a Skinnerian framework,” Kidwell says.
Skinner’s missile prototype, along with other teaching machines, came to the Smithsonian at the end of his career. “Skinner was a teacher of Uta C. Merzbach, who was a curator in this museum,” says Kidwell. “They had a very good relationship, so when he was writing his autobiography, when he had finished writing about a particular machine, he would give it to the museum.” The American History Museum is home to several Skinner teaching machines, as well as the missile, which is on display in the “Science in American Life” exhibition.
As for the pigeons? Skinner held on to them, and just out of curiosity, occasionally tested them to see if their skills were still sharp enough for battle. One, two, four, and even six years later, the pigeons were still pecking strong.