Friday, July 12, 2013

Treasures in the Smithsonian’s Attic: A Pigeon in a Pelican

Psychologist B.F. Skinner had grand plans for Project Pigeon. Pilots during World War II had no way of aiming missiles—they just dropped them and hoped for the best. An expert on conditioning animals, Skinner decided to train pigeons to steer missiles from the inside. Doing so would certainly shorten and might even win the war for the Allies, he argued. The military had doubts, but it gave Skinner $25,000 to build a prototype nose cone, which the Smithsonian now owns. It’s a gumdrop-shaped device about two feet long, painted hazard orange and silver...In final design, they would have viewed the outside world through a primitive touchscreen. The birds would peck at any targets they saw. If the peck struck the middle of the screen, the missile would stay on course. If it struck off-center, air valves would open and adjust the flight path. What ultimately doomed Project Pigeon wasn’t the birds. more

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