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Hitting the Books: During World War II, even our pigeons joined the fight

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In the years leading up to, and through, World War II, animal behaviorist researchers thoroughly embraced motion picture technology as a means to better capture the daily experiences of their test subjects — whether exploring the nuances of contemporary chimpanzee society or running macabre rat-eat-rat survival experiments to determine the Earth’s “carrying capacity.” However, once the studies had run their course, much of that scientific content was simply shelved. 

In his new book, The Celluloid Specimen: Moving Image Research into Animal Life, Seattle University Assistant Professor of Film Studies Dr. Ben Schultz-Figueroa, pulls these historic archives out of the vacuum of academic research to examine how they have influenced America’s scientific and moral compasses since. In the excerpt below, Schultz-Figueroa recounts the Allied war effort to guide precision aerial munitions towards their targets using live pigeons as onboard targeting reticles.

University of California Press

Excerpted from The Celluloid Specimen: Moving Image Research into Animal Life by Ben Schultz-Figueroa, published by the University of California Press. © 2023 by Ben Schultz-Figueroa.

Project Pigeon: Rendering the War Animal through Optical Technology
In his 1979 autobiography, The Shaping of a Behaviorist, B. F. Skinner recounted a fateful train ride to Chicago in 1940, just after the Nazis had invaded Denmark. Gazing out the train window, the renowned behaviorist was ruminating on the destructive power of aerial warfare when his eye unexpectedly caught a “flock of birds lifting and wheeling in formation as they flew alongside the train.” Skinner recounts: “Suddenly I saw them as ‘devices’ with excellent vision and extraordinary maneuverability. Could they not guide a missile?” Observing the coordination of the flock, its “lifting and wheeling,” inspired in Skinner a new vision of aerial warfare, one that yoked the senses and movements of living animals to the destructive power of modern ballistics. This momentary inspiration began a three-year project to weaponize pigeons, code-named “Project Pigeon,” by having them guide the flight of a bomb from inside its nose, a project that tied together laboratory research, military technology, and private industry.

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This strange story is popularly discussed as a historical fluke of sorts, a wacky one-off in military research and development. As Skinner himself described it, one of the main obstacles to Project Pigeon even at the time was the perception of a pigeon guided missile as a “crackpot idea.” But in this section I will argue that it is, in fact, a telling example of the weaponization of animals in a modern technological setting where optical media was increasingly deployed on the battlefield, a transformation with increasing strategic and ethical implications for the way war is fought today. I demonstrate that Project Pigeon was historically placed at the intersection of a crucial shift in warfare away from the model of an elaborate chess game played out by generals and their armies and toward an ecological framework in which a wide array of nonhuman agents play crucial roles. As Jussi Parikka recently described a similar shift in artificial intelligence, this was a movement toward “agents that expressed complex behavior, not through preprogramming and centralization, but through autonomy, emergence, and distributed functioning.” The missile developed and marketed by Project Pigeon was premised on a conversion of the pigeon from an individual consciousness to a living machine, emptied of intentionality in order to leave behind only a controllable, yet dynamic and complex, behavior that could be designed and trusted to operate without the oversight of a human commander. Here is a reimagining of what a combatant can be, no longer dependent on a decision-making human actor but rather on a complex array of interactions among an organism, device, and environment. As we will see, the vision of a pigeon-guided bomb presaged the nonhuman sight of the smart bomb, drone, and military robot, where artificial intelligence and computer algorithms replace the operations of its animal counterpart.

Media and cinema scholars have written extensively about the transforming visual landscape of the battlefield and film’s place within this shifting history. Militaries from across the globe have pushed film to be used in dramatically unorthodox ways. Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson argue that the US military historically used film as “an iterative apparatus with multiple capacities and functions,” experimenting with the design of the camera, projector, and screen to fit new strategic interests as they arose. As Wasson argues in her chapter dedicated to experimental projection practices, the US Army “boldly dissembled cinema’s settled routines and structures, rearticulating film projection as but one integral element of a growing institution with highly complex needs.” As propaganda, film was used to portray the military to civilians at home and abroad; as training films, it was used to consistently instruct large numbers of recruits; as industrial and advertising films, different branches of the military used it to speak to each other. Like these examples, Project Pigeon relied on a radically unorthodox use of film that directed it into new terrains, intervening in the long-standing relationship between the moving image and its spectators to marshal its influence on nonhuman viewers, as well as humans. Here, we will see a hitherto unstudied use of the optical media, in which film was a catalyst for transforming animals into weapons and combatants.

Project Pigeon was one of the earliest projects to come out of an illustrious and influential career. Skinner would go on to become one of the most well-known voices in American psychology, introducing the “Skinner box” to the study of animal behavior and the vastly influential theory of “operant conditioning.” His influence was not limited to the sciences but was broadly felt across conversations in political theory, linguistics, and philosophy as well. As James Capshew has shown, much of Skinner’s later, more well-known research originated in this military research into pigeon-guided ballistics. Growing from initial independent trials in 1940, Project Pigeon secured funding from the US Army’s Office of Scientific Research and Development in 1943. The culmination of this work placed three pigeons in the head of a missile; the birds had been trained to peck at a screen showing incoming targets. These pecks were then translated into instructions for the missile’s guidance system. The goal was a 1940s version of a smart bomb, which was capable of course correcting mid-flight in response to the movement of a target. Although Project Pigeon developed relatively rapidly, the US Army was ultimately denied further funds in December of 1943, effectively ending Skinner’s brief oversight of the project. In 1948, however, the US Naval Research Laboratory picked up Skinner’s research and renamed it “Project ORCON” — a contraction of “organic” and “control.” Here, with Skinner’s consultation, the pigeons’ tracking capacity for guiding missiles to their intended targets was methodically tested, demonstrating a wide variance in reliability. In the end, the pigeons’ performance and accuracy relied on so many uncontrollable factors that Project ORCON, like Project Pigeon before it, was discontinued.

Moving images played two central roles in Project Pigeon: first, as a means of orienting the pigeons in space and testing the accuracy of their responses, examples of what Harun Farocki calls “operational images,” and, second, as a tool for convincing potential sponsors of the pigeon’s capacity to act as a weapon. The first use of moving image technology shows up in the final design of Project Pigeon, where each of the three pigeons was constantly responding to camera obscuras that were installed in the front of the bomb. The pigeons were trained to pinpoint the shape of incoming targets on individual screens (or “plates”) by pecking them as the bomb dropped, which would then cause it to change course. This screen was connected to the bomb’s guidance through four small rubber pneumatic tubes that were attached to each of side of the frame, which directed a constant airflow to a pneumatic pickup system that controlled the thrusters of the bomb. As Skinner explained: “When the missile was on target, the pigeon pecked the center of the plate, all valves admitted equal amounts of air, and the tambours remained in neutral positions. But if the image moved as little as a quarter of an inch off-center, corresponding to a very small angular displacement of the target, more air was admitted by the valves on one side, and the resulting displacement of the tambours sent appropriate correcting orders directly to the servo system.” 

In the later iteration of Project ORCON, the pigeons were tested and trained with color films taken from footage recorded on a jet making diving runs on a destroyer and a freighter, and the pneumatic relays between the servo system and the screen were replaced with electric currents. Here, the camera obscura and the training films were used to integrate the living behavior of the pigeon into the mechanism of the bomb itself and to produce immersive simulations for these nonhuman pilots in order to fully operationalize their behavior.

The second use of moving images for this research was realized in a set of promotional films for Project Pigeon, which Skinner largely credited for procuring its initial funding from General Mills Inc. and the navy’s later renewal of the research as Project ORCON. Skinner’s letters indicate that there were multiple films made for this purpose, which were often recut in order to incorporate new footage. Currently, I have been able to locate only a single version of the multiple films produced by Skinner, the latest iteration that was made to promote Project ORCON. Whether previous versions exist and have yet to be found or whether they were taken apart to create each new version is unclear. Based on the surviving example, it appears that these promotional films were used to dramatically depict the pigeons as reliable and controllable tools. Their imagery presents the birds surrounded by cutting-edge technology, rapidly and competently responding to a dynamic array of changing stimuli. These promotional films played a pivotal rhetorical role in convincing government and private sponsors to back the project. Skinner wrote that one demonstration film was shown “so often that it was completely worn out—but to good effect for support was eventually found for a thorough investigation.” This contrasted starkly with the live presentation of the pigeons’ work, of which Skinner wrote: “the spectacle of a living pigeon carrying out its assignment, no matter how beautifully, simply reminded the committee of how utterly fantastic our proposal was.” Here, the moving image performed an essentially symbolic function, concerned primarily with shaping the image of the weaponized animal bodies.

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