It’s 1943, and America desperately needs a way to reliably bomb targets in Nazi Germany. What do we do? For B.F. Skinner, noted psychologist and inventor, the answer was obvious: pigeons.
“During World War II, there was a grave concern about aiming missiles,” says Peggy Kidwell, a curator of Medicine and Science at the American History Museum. “Military officials really wanted to figure out how to aim them accurately,” 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.
Skinner had already used pigeons in his psychological research, training them to press levers for food. An obsessive inventor, he had been pondering weapons targeting systems one day when he saw a flock of birds maneuvering in formation in the sky. “Suddenly I saw them as ‘devices’ with excellent vision and extraordinary maneuverability,” he said. “Could they not guide a missile? Was the answer to the problem waiting for me in my own back yard?”
Getting to work, Skinner decided on pigeons because of both their vision and unflappable behavior in chaotic conditions. 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.
But how did pigeons guide the missiles?
Their natural sense for identification was used to train them in recognising a target. The pigeon was then harnessed in front of a screen with a projected image. The screen was mounted on pivots so that it would move in relation to the nose of the missile. Any deviation of the missiles path from the intended target would move the image on the screen. The pigeon would peck at the target, controlling sensors that guided the missile back on path.
Obviously technology has come a long way since WWII. Satellite and radar controlled systems have replaced the need for pigeon guided missiles. But the pigeons natural ability to track and identify has been developed in other ways. Loaded with surveillance kit, their natural abilities are harnessed for collecting private data from the public. Once a pigeon drone has you in its sight, the camera and recording equipment does its thing.
The decades of human control over pigeons is far from over as technology improves and private data increases in value.
Project Orcon is still a threat. And an exhibit at the American History Museum in Washington, D.C., details the history of this avian instrument of war.