During times of war it pays to be resourceful and World War Two (WWII) certainly wasn’t afraid of getting creative when it came to rations, weapons, and a surfeit of carrots (have you met Doctor Carrot?). American behaviorist B.F. Skinner's contribution to develop an organically-controlled guided bomb sits high in the roster of inventive wartime hires, when he took three birds and turned them into pilots for Project Pigeon.
The aircraft they were to control was effectively a small glider with a “guidance section” in the nose cone. The craft’s cargo was an explosive warhead, but it needed help finding its target as it had no crew. Having a human pilot onboard would’ve been akin to the Shinp? Tokubetsu K?gekitai or “kamikaze” pilots of the Japanese Special Attack Units, who infamously went down with their planes.
What they needed was a directed bomb that could be dropped and reach its intended target without risking the lives of civilians. Bombardiers were already dropping bombs at this time, but after the explosive left the plane the pilots couldn’t know for sure that it’d landed where they intended it to.
Not wanting to risk human life, Skinner looked to the humble pigeon to see if organic control could be achieved with the help of an animal that was at home in the air. The inspiration behind his idea came when he spotted a flock of birds flying alongside a train he was sitting on.
“Suddenly I saw them as `devices’ with excellent vision and extraordinary maneuverability,” History Net reports Skinner said. “Could they not guide a missile? Was the answer to the problem waiting for me in my own backyard?”
The Project Pigeon concept was, understandably, met with some skepticism but he received $25,000 from the National Defense Research Committee nonetheless and got to work. First of all, he built the pigeon pilots’ cockpits which were fitted with three screens tucked inside a nose cone (unfortunately – for the pigeons) placed on the missile’s tip.
With the lure of delicious seed, he effectively used operant conditioning (something he hadn’t yet helped invent) to train the pigeons to recognize a target and peck at it. The idea was that if all three pigeon pilots were pecking in the same direction then that’s the way the missile needed to head. The missile’s change in direction would be facilitated by cables attached to the bird’s head which would mechanically steer it.
Skinner’s “bird-brained idea” actually led to a successful demonstration but the officials' skepticism endured, and Project Pigeon was abandoned. Little did those naysayers know that humanity would later employ the help of dolphins, beluga whales, and a cyborg cat to fight their battles.
Pigeon pilots would never take to the skies, but this was far from the end for Skinner. He went on to carve out a pretty good career for himself as one of America’s leading psychologists and the “father of operant conditioning”, without which we would never have trained fish to drive tiny cars on land.
And where would we be without that.