World War II was a wonderful mix of high tech, low tech, and just plain crazy. One idea, which in many ways exemplified the era, was the concept of the pigeon-guided missile, thought up by none other than B.F. Skinner.


Skinner, of course, is the behavioral psychologist who pioneered operant conditioning, and is famous for advocating that babies should be raised in boxes. But he outdid himself in 1944, when he patriotically came up with an idea for a pigeon-guided missile. Skinner had long established that he could train pigeons to peck at certain buttons when subjected to stimuli. That made them, under the right circumstances, into reliable workers who were completely disposable. When missiles became important, he decided to use these disposable workers to the Allies' advantage.

Pigeons, he discovered, could be trained to recognize boats. If they were shown an image of a boat under glass, they could then be trained to peck at that image, if given some grain when they had pecked enough. Some pigeons could peck 10,000 times in 45 minutes.


If the missile had a glass plate over a front section, with a pigeon behind it, the pigeon could look down on the ocean below. If it saw a boat, it would peck at the place on the glass where it saw the boat, hoping to get fed. If the pigeon were pecking slightly to the left of the center of glass, the missile could take that data and swing to the left. If it pecked to the right, the missile would swing to the right. If it pecked dead center, the missile would be right on target, moving towards the boat. As the boat got closer, the pigeon could be trained to peck more, letting the missile 'know' that it was on course, until it hit the boat and exploded.

The military was quite in favor of the idea, at first, but practical problems like getting the pigeon to stay calm on a flying missile, and the worry that hungry pigeons might take out allied boats, diminished the enthusiasm for the idea. At last, when automated guidance systems became easier to produce and more reliable, the pigeons were abandoned entirely. The idea is so wild that its dismissal is almost a pity.

Via History Wired.