The image of the crackpot inventor, disheveled, disorganized, and surrounded by the remains of his failures, is an enduring Hollywood trope. While a simple look around one’s shop will probably reveal how such stereotypes get started, the image is largely not a fair characterization of the creative mind and how it works, and does not properly respect those who struggle daily to push the state of the art into uncharted territory.
That said, there are plenty of wacky ideas that have come down the pike, most of which mercifully fade away before attracting undue attention. In times of war, though, the need for new and better ways to blow each other up tends to bring out the really nutty ideas and lower the barrier to revealing them publically, or at least to military officials.
Of all the zany plans that came from the fertile minds on each side of World War II, few seem as out there as a plan to use birds to pilot bombs to their targets. And yet such a plan was not only actively developed, it came from the fertile mind of one of the 20th century’s most brilliant psychologists, and very nearly resulted in a fieldable weapon that would let fly the birds of war.
After graduating from college in 1926, Burrhus Frederic Skinner was a bit of a lost soul. He had had every intention of being a writer, but nothing seemed to be coming from his efforts. Living in his parents’ Pennsylvania home, he decided to scrap his plan of writing the Great American Novel and return to school.
Inspired by the works of Pavlov and Watson, which he browsed while working at a bookstore to make ends meet, B.F. Skinner applied to the Psychology Department of Harvard University in 1926. Skinner was interested in making psychology an experimental science, and rather than concentrating on exploring the mind, he was determined to only study what could be quantified. Instead of trying to delve into the subjective world of thoughts and emotions, he decided to study behaviors.
Anyone who has taken an introductory psychology course will be familiar with “operant conditioning,” the term Skinner came up with to describe one way that animals learn. The idea with operant conditioning is that behaviors are either reinforced or discouraged by what happens as a result of the behavior. The classic case occurs in the Skinner Box, an invention of his. In the simplest case, a rat placed in the box can be trained to press a lever by the release of a food pellet, or can be discouraged from pressing the lever by getting an electric shock through the cage floor. Operant conditioning differs from classical conditioning, such as in the case of Pavlov’s famously drooling dogs, in that the latter makes an association between stimulus and an involuntary response, like salivating at the sound of a bell, while the former deals with voluntary behaviors, like pressing a lever.
By the 1940s, B.F. Skinner had spent years studying operant conditioning on a variety of model organisms, using dozens of instruments of his own devising to quantify behavior. With war raging around the globe, Skinner pondered the devastation caused by bombing campaigns, which relied on massive quantities of bombs to make up for the lack of precision in the aiming. He wondered if there would be any way to guide a bomb or missile to its target, and hit upon the idea of using one of the stars of his operant conditioning boxes — pigeons. Easily trained and with excellent eyesight, pigeons might make a workable guidance system for ordnance.
Skinner set to work in his lab with a few pigeons he bought from a poultry store. He first pictured a restrained bird controlling guidance fins on the bomb using head movements. Stuffed into a harness made from a sock with a hole cut in the toe, the bird would watch the approaching target and effect control while moving its head to keep the target centered in a window in the projectile’s nose. He tested his idea with a complicated gantry system whose motors were controlled by the bird’s movements and found that a properly conditioned pigeon could control its position well enough to arrive on target — a food bowl with some seeds — as the gantry was pushed across the room. The idea had promise.
Skinner began to sell his idea around, but not surprisingly, he was rebuffed. Even the National Research Defense Committee (NRDC), a clearinghouse for all manner of crackpot ideas to aid the war effort, turned him down. Skinner pressed on, though, improving his system and meticulously recording his results. Eventually, he got the attention of the right people and was awarded a contract to develop the idea further. In a sign of just how little esteem the War Department held Skinner’s idea, the effort was dubbed “Project Pigeon,” with no effort to conceal its nature.
Project Pigeon centered around 64 birds trained using the same techniques as his first cohort. Rather than use head movements directly, though, Skinner switched to training the birds to peck at the target to keep it centered in their field of view. The conditioned birds would peck wildly at the screen, with the idea that the pecking would be translated into electrical control signals. Sadly, though, before the control system was developed, the military cut funding to the program to direct funds to projects that were more likely to deliver. Project Pigeon was no more.
The Return of the Pigeons
Skinner was disappointed by what he thought was the shortsightedness of the War Department brass. But Project Pigeon still had some surprises to deliver. Skinner kept the 64 pigeons and some of his test apparatus, which he used to test the birds over the next few years. Without any further training, the birds were all able to perform to the level they attained during the program, as many as six years later. Skinner felt that this proved his methods, and gave him valuable insights into operant conditioning, which he applied to his research.
After the war, the project was resurrected as a Cold War effort by the Navy to target Soviet ships at sea. Skinner’s principles were put to the test under Project Orcon, for “organic control,” with trios of pigeons stuffed into the nosecones of missiles. Technology had advanced a bit in the intervening years, such that the birds could peck directly at a conductive glass window with a beak-mounted metal tab; the three birds were to work together to guide the missile onto the target.
Project Orcon had some successful tests under ideal conditions, but the lack of real-world usability and developments in electronic guidance resulted in the project being killed in 1953. But the legacy of Skinner’s pigeons lived on, with the principle used to rescue lost fisherman with pigeons trained for aerial search missions. This along with the practical test of Skinner’s operant conditioning theories was the real benefit of Project Pigeon, and is perhaps a better ending than anyone imagined for such a crazy idea.
Thanks to [Gervais] for the idea for this article.