Project Pigeon and “Organic” Guidance

 Project Pigeon Web

(Illustration by Alvin Quiambao) 

By Colin E. Babb

In a war that had seen perhaps history’s fastest expansion of ideas for how humans could kill more of their own species, as well as cause increasing amounts of collateral damage, one weapon technology demonstration in the spring of 1944 may not have been the craziest of ideas. But it was close.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner and a small team of researchers were making their final appeal to the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) for an ordnance guidance system that used pigeons as the guiding “mechanism.” While there were some problems with the program—integrating the nose cone, which contained the pigeons, with the missile—the pigeons themselves did their job perfectly. “But the spectacle of a living pigeon carrying out its assignment, no matter how beautifully,” Skinner wrote years later, “simply reminded the committee of how utterly fantastic our proposal was. I will not say that the meeting was marked by unrestrained merriment, for the merriment was restrained. But it was there, and it was obvious our case had been lost.”


The concept, on the surface, was quite simple: One or more carefully trained pigeons inside the nose cone of a bomb or missile would peck on a screen-projected image of a ship or other target. As the target grew closer, the image would get bigger, and the pecking on the screen would be transmitted electrically or mechanically to control mechanisms in the weapon, guiding it— hopefully—to the target. Needless to say, the pigeon (or pigeons) was not expected to survive the encounter.

In 1940, Skinner initially envisioned his animalbased guidance system as a way to shoot down aircraft from the ground—an early surface-to-air missile concept before practical versions of such weapons even existed. As the war progressed, his guidance system was planned for air-to-ground (or surface) missiles. Skinner and his colleagues were responding to very real technological problems: how to mitigate the high casualty rates
of combat flyers, and how to increase the accuracy of air-dropped ordnance. Not only was it dangerous being a flyer in World War II—some 160,000 American and British Commonwealth airmen became casualties in the strategic air campaign over Europe alone—those who did make it through to targets usually had to hit them in large numbers because of the low accuracy of contemporary bomb aiming equipment.

Radio control, a promising guidance method, was actually several decades old by the beginning of World War II. Basic experiments with British and American remote-controlled aircraft proved the concept in World War I, and the U.S. Navy used the old battleships North Dakota (BB 29) and Utah (BB 31/AG 16) as radio-controlled target ships in the interwar years. The Germans were the first, however, to use guided air-to-surface munitions in combat. On 9 September 1943, aircraft from Kampfgeschwader 100, carrying the Fritz X radio-controlled glide bomb, heavily damaged the Italian battleship Italia and sank its sister ship Roma—the day after Italy surrendered to the Allies and switched sides. Over the next week, the same Luftwaffe unit damaged numerous Allied ships off the coast of Italy during the invasion at Salerno, using either the Fritz X or the rocket-powered Henschel Hs 293. Both the Americans and British, however, quickly discovered that the radio signal guiding these bombs could be jammed electronically. A mini-arms race ensued as both sides sought to create new control and jamming units through to the end of the war.

Radar also was a good candidate for early guided munitions. The Pelican—a U.S. glide bomb developed for the Navy by the NDRC in 1942—originally was tested with a semi-active radar homing system that involved releasing the weapon from a PV-1 Ventura aircraft, which would have an active radar emitter that would send a signal picked up by a passive radar receiver aboard the Pelican. Early radars, however, were of short range and often suffered from interference from other emissions. For those designing the Allies’ guided weapons with these experiences in mind, there was room for guidance systems that used something other than the electromagnetic spectrum.


It was in this context that Skinner proceeded with his work in 1943 and 1944. Skinner was an expert in the field of behavioral psychology—he would go on to be a pioneer in the field and one of the most well-known psychologists of the 20th century. His work during the war revolved around the concept of “operant conditioning.” This type of conditioning was meant to prompt specific behaviors without the use of certain stimuli—as with Ivan Pavlov’s salivating dogs in which bells are able to produce a similar response to food. Salivation was a behavior the dogs already were capable of; operant conditioning sought to train animals to perform new behaviors. Skinner’s early work, profiled in a 1937 Life article, involved training a rat to take a marble and drop it down a hole to receive a bit of food. At the beginning of the war, Skinner thought he could apply this kind of conditioning to pigeons to get them to control bombs or missiles.

The lowly (or hapless) pigeon—long a companion of Soldiers on the battlefield as a (sometimes) cooperative messenger—was not an unfamiliar animal to Sailors in the Navy. USS Langley (CV 1), the first U.S. aircraft carrier, originally carried pigeons meant to be used to deliver messages from aircraft back to the carrier. (The pigeons proved to be even less cooperative for this task, however, than their Army brethren.)

Skinner, in his laboratory at the University of Minnesota, concentrated on designing a special nose cone to be fitted on the Pelican glide bomb. Early experiments had the pigeons mounted in a little harness that controlled the bomb’s movement as the pigeon’s head moved up and down or left and right. The concept seemed to work well enough that Skinner and several graduate students shopped the idea to the NDRC and the Navy in 1942, but neither organization initially was interested. Skinner’s first funding—$5,000—came from the General Mills Company. A demonstration of the progress so far in March 1943, where the birds now pecked at a screen and the contacts were transmitted electrically to steering mechanisms, resulted in a favorable review by the NDRC and a contract for $25,000 to fund the project to the end of the year.

Later experimentation resulted in a new pneumatic control mechanism, where four air valves released air when the pigeon pecked at the screen. Equal amounts of air were released when the pigeon pecked at the center of the screen. If the bird pecked off center, more air was emitted on one side, displacing a small drum or tambour that connected directly to the control mechanism. Skinner was never able to acquire an actual Pelican bomb or even its technical specifications for use in his experiments, so his group was unable to properly calibrate the signals sent by his working pigeon guidance system. This fundamental disconnect between Skinner and his group and the Pelican group ultimately resulted in the cancellation of Project Pigeon when, in March 1944, Skinner gave one final performance before the NDRC. The meeting, held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, involved a live demonstration with a pigeon. The bird pecked “steadily and energetically,” in Skinner’s words, at a target image moving on an illuminated plate. The pigeon’s success, however, couldn’t overcome the committee’s concern about the integration issues with the Pelican or the fundamentally outlandish nature of the whole project. As Skinner and his sponsor from General Mills, Arthur Hyde, left the meeting, Hyde turned to Skinner and said, “Why don’t you go out and get drunk!”

At the time of Project Pigeon’s cancellation, the first kamikaze had yet to appear in the Pacific theater. After the first attacks by these suicide aircraft manned by young Japanese pilots later that fall, however, in retrospect the relative “insanity” of Project Pigeon paled in comparison (although perhaps not from the pigeons’ perspective). Skinner, in his description of the project published in 1960, could look back with a sense of humor about his years of experimentation, but he also remained adamant that at its heart the concept really could have worked.

A generation of pigeons, if they could be pressed for their thoughts, is probably thankful that it didn’t.

About the Author:

Colin Babb is a contractor serving as the historian for the Office of Naval Research and the managing editor of Future Force.

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