This Pigeon-Guided Missile System Was (Thankfully) Never Deployed

Yesterday, in 1904, pyschologist B.F. Skinner was born. His contribution to the world? This pigeon-guided missile system, among other things. Yes, really.

Illustration for article titled This Pigeon-Guided Missile System Was (Thankfully) Never Deployed

According to the Smithsonian American History Museum's official Instagram:

During World War II, the US military needed to find accurate ways to guide missiles to their targets. University of Minnesota psychologist B. F. Skinner suggested that a missile nose cone be supplied with three compartments, each with a window. A pigeon would be placed in each section, and trained to peck on the window when the target appeared. If all three pigeons pecked, the weapon would be released. This prototype was never developed, but influenced later work on animal training.

I'm gonna go out on a limb and say it's a good thing this particular weapon of war was never deployed. First off, I can't help but feel like someone would quickly find a way to subvert pigeons from their correct target. Moreover, suicide bombing birds is just plain cruel. Still, the idea of pigeons hurling across the sky, raining judgement down upon our enemies in this adorable little retrofuture contraption is worth a laugh. Americans are nothing if not inventive.

[American History Museum via Instagram]



Semi-related anecdote:

When I was an undergraduate in the early 60s (!), the Psychology faculty was still split between the (Skinnerian) behaviorialists and the more traditional Freudians, Jungians, etc. The story was told that one faculty member was adamantly and loudly opposed to the behavioralists, and that some of the undergrads organized a small group in the Professor's lecture class so that every time he approached the blackboard, this faction (spread out in the class) would lean forward and become attentive, and when he walked away from the board, they would lean back. Supposedly by the end of the semester, he was virtually writing his lectures on the blackboard as he spoke.

Can't attest to it personally, but I've always loved the story.