Behavioural analyst, author, innovator, poet, social philosopher, and Harvard professor of psychology, Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990) was certainly a highly influential jack-of-all-trades. He invented the operant conditioning chamber, the cumulative recorder, the teaching machine, and pioneered his own scientific philosophy, ‘Radical Behaviorism’. What he is perhaps less revered for, is his development of a rather unique and potentially calamitous missile guidance system during WWII.
The US Navy was in need of a weapon capable of countering the formidable German Bismarck class battleships. Missile technology did already exist; the problem was that the guidance systems were too large and too primitive for the missiles to be considered effective. While the military desperately worked on these rudimentary electronic guidance systems, Skinner, keen to be of service, sought government funding for a top secret project to overcome the problem. His idea sounded simple: he would train pigeons to guide the missiles, tapping a target on a screen with their beaks to control the direction.
The nose cone of the missile would be split into three compartments, with a lens projecting an image of the intended target onto a screen at the front. A pigeon in each compartment, trained by operant conditioning to recognise the target, would peck at it continually. Pecks to the centre of the screen caused the missile to fly straight, whilst off- centre pecks tilted the screen which would alter the missile’s course.