S is for B F Skinner

This is my contribution to ABC Wednesday and for Round Ten I am focusing on people from the past, some famous, others less so.
B F Skinner and pigeon

B F Skinner and pigeon

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was an inventor, author, social philosopher and poet but is best known for his work as a behavioural scientist. And his pigeon-guided missile.

Skinner was born in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, in 1904 and became an atheist at an early age when a Christian teacher tried to explain the concept of hell as described by his grandmother.

‘Within a year I had gone to Miss Graves to tell her that I no longer believed in God. “I know,” she said, “I have been through that myself.” But her strategy misfired: I never went through it.’

Skinner had intended to become an author and studied English literature at Harvard University and after graduation he spent some time attempting to be a writer of fiction, but concluded that he just didn’t have enough worldly experience to be successful.

Instead he returned to academia to study psychology and to develop his own applications of behaviorism, based on his experiments on animals and birds, especially pigeons.

It was this work that led Skinner to devise one of the strangest weapons of World War II – the pigeon-guided missile.

Skinner had his brainwave while watching a flock of birds flying alongside a train. He figured that he could use his behavioural skills to train pigeons to guide missiles to specific targets.

He used pieces of grain to teach his birds to peck at pictures of possible targets on a screen, such as trains and tanks. Once this behaviour was learned, three pigeons would be loaded inside a pressurised chamber in the missile nose cone.

Pigeon Missile

Pigeon Missile

A glass lens allowed the pigeons to see out and the theory was that as soon as they saw a target they had been taught to recognise, they would peck at the lens. This would be translated into adjustments of the missiles guidance system.

Prototype missiles were built and hundreds of pigeons trained, but at a demonstration in 1944, officials were not convinced that the birds could be safely controlled and Skinner’s stratagem was scrapped.

Skinner was one of the most influential and controversial scientists of the 20th century and you can read more about him on Wikipedia.

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8 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 23rd May 2012

    I remember reading about BF Skinner in my freshman psych course, but I hadn’t heard about the pigeons!

    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  • Leslie 23rd May 2012

    The entire experiment sounds a bit off…I can imagine the pigeons being blown up before the missile got launched! Interesting, though,

    abcw team

  • Meryl 23rd May 2012

    I studied Skinner and Behaviorism in detail in graduate school, although I don’t remember learning about the pigeon-guided missiles. I am, however, a strong proponent of behavior therapy… I am not ashamed to say I often bribed my kids as a means of ‘positive reinforcement’.

    Great post, have a great week.

  • Gattina 23rd May 2012

    Interesting post, but I must admit, I never heard of him.
    ABC Team

  • Carol Carson 23rd May 2012

    I taught at St. George’s School in Montreal during the 1970’s. The philosophy of education was based on some of B.F.Skinner’s ideas. I didn’t know about the pigeons, and since I have never been able to see why animals/birds/wildlife should be asked to serve human needs, it was a bit disturbing. Thanks for a very interesting post!

  • photowannabe 23rd May 2012

    He looked like a rather cranky man with some interesting ideas.

  • Francisca 24th May 2012

    His research and writings on operant conditioning makes B F Skinner one of the great pioneers in psychology. I don’t recall being taught this about pigeon-guided missile research in university, but I do remember the slanderous (untrue) rumours flying around some many years back about his raising his daughter in laboratory conditions.

  • Chris H 4th June 2012

    I don’t think this is that weird. He saw a problem and came up with a rather novel solution that took advantage of the technology at the time.

    Parrots and members of the Corvidae family, such as ravens, might have worked better. However, I think that the big limit was the cost of training Kamikaze animals, which is probably pretty prohibitive. Service animals can cost $30,000 or more to train.

    We actually do use animals all the time to find, track and detonate weapons. The Navy marine mammal program and the Army service dog programs are two examples.


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