B.F. Skinner & The Pigeon-Guided Missile


During World War II there was great interest in finding a way to reliably steer a missile to a target. However, the guided missile was still in the wishing and hoping stage as far as the U.S. was concerned. Enter the behaviorist psychologist B.F. Skinner. He hit upon the idea of using trios of trained pigeons as kamikaze pilots by mounting modified Skinner boxes in the nose cones.



“Skinner approached the National Research Defense Committee with his plan, code-named ‘Project Pigeon.’ Members of the committee were doubtful, but granted Skinner $25,000 to get started.

“He built a nose cone for a missile fitted with three small electronic screens and three tiny pigeon cockpits. Onto the screens was projected an image of the ground in front of the rocket.

“He would train street pigeons to recognize the pattern of the target, and to peck when they saw this target,” says Kidwell. “And then when all three of them pecked, it was thought you could actually aim the missile in that direction.” As the pigeons pecked, cables harnessed to each one’s head would mechanically steer the missile until it finally reached its mark. Alas, without an escape hatch, the birds would perish along with their target, making it a kamikaze mission.”

The source fails to mention how long it took to train the pigeons to peck upon seeing the proper target. The amount of time required may have been one of the factors influencing the committee’s decision not to fund the project.

Skinner kept the pigeons, curious to see how long they would retain the training. They still pecked on cue several years later.

One of them seems to have found a home hosting the C.I.A.’s children’s web page.

Be seeing you.



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