S is for B F Skinner

I am again focusing on the famous, the forgotten and the misbegotten for Round 25 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme. But finding suitable characters is getting harder, so apologies in advance if there are repeats of previous posts.
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 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.

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.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

5 comments… Add yours
  • Margy 14th November 2019

    I remember studying about Skinner in college. – Margy

  • rhymeswithplague 16th November 2019

    It finally happened. You ran out of Brits to write about.

    Thanks for the nod in our direction.

  • Trevor Rowley 18th November 2019

    Sorry, Mr Plague, but I don’t think we’ve run out of Brits to write about – there’s about sixty million of us over here, you know! Mr Parrot tends to do the unusual and quirky ones but there are always lots of ordinary bods who could get a mention. For a start, good old Will Shakespeare is always worth a mention (that fella has certainly sold a few books in his time). Then there’s George Stephenson and his “Rocket” locomotive (we wouldn’t have had any railways without him). A couple of ordinary guys to round this off – Sir Hartley Shawcross QC was the lead British prosecutor at the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials (managed to send several of those naughty boys to the other side, don’t you know). Conversely, Sidney Silverman MP worked tirelessly for the abolition of hanging in the UK. I could mention Ronald Shiner but I’ll guess that name wouldn’t mean much to you. Just an ordinary British actor popping in up in lots of ordinary black and white British films just after the war (always played a cheeky , cockney chappie). And there’s lots more where those came from.

  • rhymeswithplague 18th November 2019

    Dear Trevor Rowley,

    I knew that. I was being obtuse.


  • Roger Green 18th November 2019

    Susquehanna, PA is not far from Binghamton, NY , where I was born.
    I too learned about Skinner in college


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