World War II’s Doomed 'Project Pigeon'
Many of mankind’s greatest innovations were products of war. Sadly, pigeon-guided missiles never had a chance to be one of them.
That wouldn’t have been the case if B.F. Skinner had his way. In World War II, the American inventor hatched a plan for the military’s missile-aiming problem: pigeons. By building a nose-cone for the front of a missile with three bird-sized cockpits fitted with tiny screens, he predicted that pigeon pilots would be able to successfully guide the weapon to its target. The screens would display an image of the oncoming target which the pigeons would be trained to peck at, and cables attached to their heads would steer the missile in the right direction.
Skinner already had experience training pigeons to push levers for food, so this was of course the next logical step. Despite being skeptical of the idea, the National Research Defense Committee granted him $25,000 to go ahead with "Project Pigeon." Skinner chose pigeons for both their excellent vision and ability to keep cool in chaotic situations. The latter was especially important, considering the birds wouldn’t have a chance to eject and were essentially hurtling toward their demise.
Luckily minimal pigeon lives were sacrificed in the line of duty because even after seeing a successful test run, the military decided to cancel the project. But who knows? If officials had further funded Skinner's venture, perhaps pigeons would be best-known for being war heroes—and not for just pooping on statues of them.
[h/t: Smithsonian Magazine]