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 behaviourism, 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.
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.