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

IIn the years leading up to and through World War II, animal behaviorists embraced film technology as a means of better capturing the daily experiences of their test subjects—whether exploring the nuances of modern chimpanzee society or engaging in macabre rat-eating. -rat survival experiments to determine the soil’s “carrying capacity”. But once the studies had run their course, much of the scientific content was simply shelved.

In his new book, The Celluloid Test: Moving Image Research in Wildlife, Seattle University Assistant Professor of Film Studies Dr. Ben Schultz-Figueroa, pulls these historical archives out of the vacuum of academic research to examine how they have influenced America’s scientific and moral compass ever since. In the excerpt below, Schultz-Figueroa recounts the Allied war effort to direct precision air munitions at their targets using live pigeons as onboard targets.

University of California Press

Excerpt from The Celluloid Test: Moving Image Research in Wildlife 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 Design of a Behaviorist, BF Skinner told of a fateful train trip to Chicago in 1940, just after the Nazis had invaded Denmark. The renowned behavioral scientist was staring out of the train window and pondering the destructive power of aerial warfare when his eye unexpectedly caught a “flock of birds lifting and rolling in formation as they flew along the train.” Skinner says: “Suddenly I saw them as ‘units’ with excellent vision and extraordinary manoeuvrability. Couldn’t they guide a missile?” Observing the coordination of the pack, its “lifting and wheeling,” inspired in Skinner a new vision of aerial warfare, one that linked the senses and movements of living animals to the destructive power of modern ballistics. This momentary inspiration started a three-year project to weaponize pigeons, codenamed “Project Pigeon,” by having them guide the flight of a bomb from inside their noses, a project that linked laboratory research, military technology, and private industry.

This strange story is popularly referred to as a kind of historical serendipity, a crazy 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 indeed a telling example of the weaponization of animals in a modern technological setting where optical media were 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 situated at the intersection of a decisive shift in warfare away from the model of an elaborate chess game played by generals and their armies and towards an ecological framework in which a wide range of non-human agents play decisive roles. As Jussi Parikka recently described a similar shift in artificial intelligence, this was a movement toward “agents expressing complex behavior, not through preprogramming and centralization, but through autonomy, emergence, and distributed functioning.” The missile developed and marketed by Project Pigeon was based on a conversion of the pigeon from an individual consciousness to a living machine, stripped of intentionality to leave only a controllable, yet dynamic and complex, behavior that could be designed and trusted to operate without the supervision of a human boss. Here is a reimagining of what a combatant can be, no longer dependent on a human actor making decisions, but rather on a complex series of interactions between an organism, unit and environment. As we will see, the vision of a pigeon-guided bomb suggested the non-human vision of the smart bomb, the drone and the military robot, where artificial intelligence and computer algorithms replace the operations of the animal counterpart.

Media and cinema scholars have written extensively about the transforming visual landscape of the battlefield and the place of film in this changing history. Militaries from around the world 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 device with multiple capacities and functions”, experimenting with the design of the camera, projector and screen to suit new strategic interests as they arose. As Wasson argues in his chapter dedicated to experimental projection practices, the US Army “boldly dismantled cinema’s fixed routines and structures, re-articulating film projection as just 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 promotional films different branches of the military used it to talk to each other. Like these examples, Project Pigeon prided on a radically unorthodox use of film that directed it into new terrains, engaging it in the long-standing relationship between the moving image and its spectators to show its influence on non-human viewers as well as humans.Here we will see a hitherto unstudied use of optical media, where film was a catalyst for transforming animals into weapons and combatants.

Project Pigeon was one of the earliest projects to emerge from an illustrious and influential career. Skinner would go on to become one of the most famous voices in American psychology, introducing the “Skinner box” to the study of animal behavior and the hugely influential theory of “operant conditioning.” His influence was not limited to the sciences, but was widely felt across conversations in political theory, linguistics and philosophy. As James Capshew has shown, much of Skinner’s later, better-known research originated in this military research into pigeon-guided ballistics. Growing from the first independent experiments in 1940, Project Pigeon secured funding from the US Army 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 notches were then translated into instructions for the missile’s guidance system. The target was a 1940s version of a smart bomb, which of course was capable of mid-course correction in response to the movement of a target. Although Project Pigeon progressed relatively quickly, the US Army was ultimately denied further funding in December 1943, effectively ending Skinner’s brief oversight of the project. In 1948, however, the US Naval Research Laboratory took up Skinner’s research and renamed it “Project ORCON”—a contraction of “organic” and “control.” Here, with Skinner’s consultation, the pigeons’ tracking capacity to guide missiles to their intended targets was methodically tested, showing wide variation in reliability. Ultimately, the pigeons’ performance and accuracy depended on so many uncontrollable factors that Project ORCON, like Project Pigeon before it, was discontinued.

Moving images played two central roles in Project Pigeon: firstly as a means of orienting the pigeons in space and testing the accuracy of their responses, examples of what Harun Farocki calls “operative images”, and secondly as a tool to convince the potential. sponsors of the pigeon’s ability to function as a weapon. The first use of moving image technology is seen in the final design of Project Pigeon, where each of the three pigeons reacted constantly to camera obscuras installed in the front of the bomb. The pigeons were trained to find the shape of incoming targets on individual screens (or “plates”) by pecking them as the bomb fell, which would then cause it to change course. This screen was connected to the bomb’s steering through four small pneumatic rubber tubes attached to each side of the frame, which directed a constant flow of air to a pneumatic pickup system that controlled the bomb’s thrusters. As Skinner explained: “When the missile was on target, the dove notched the center of the plate, all valves let in 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 let in by the valves on one side, and the resulting displacement of the tambors sent appropriate correction commands directly to the servo system.”

In the later iteration of Project ORCON, the pigeons were tested and trained with color film taken from footage taken 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 footage were used to integrate the live behavior of the pigeon into the actual mechanism of the bomb and to produce immersive simulations for these non-human pilots to fully operationalize their behaviour.

The second use of moving images for this research was realized in a set of commercials for Project Pigeon, which Skinner largely credited with obtaining the initial funding from General Mills Inc. and the Navy’s subsequent renewal of the research as Project ORCON. Skinner’s letter indicates that there were several films made for this purpose, which were often recut to include new footage. So far I’ve only been able to find a single version of the many films produced by Skinner, the latest iteration made to promote Project ORCON. It is unclear whether earlier versions exist and have yet to be found, or whether they were taken apart to create each new version. Based on the surviving example, it appears that these commercials were used to dramatically portray the pigeons as reliable and controllable tools. Their images present the birds surrounded by cutting-edge technology, responding quickly and competently to a dynamic array of changing stimuli. These commercials played a central rhetorical role in convincing public and private sponsors to support the project. Skinner wrote that a demonstration film was shown “so often that it was completely worn out – but with good effect for support it was eventually found for a thorough investigation”. This was in stark contrast to the live presentation of the pigeons’ work, of which Skinner wrote: “the spectacle of a live pigeon carrying out its mission, however beautiful, simply reminded the committee of how wonderful our proposal was.” Here, the moving image had an important symbolic function, primarily concerned with shaping the image of the armed animal bodies.

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