The Puckle Gun and Others – Part Two

Bobo, Going Postal

Author’s Note:-

Right, you lot. It must by now be blatantly obvious that we could have dealt with this in a far brisker fashion. Absent the cleverdickery and all the chortle-chortle, so-called funny stuff and we could have dispatched the subject at the first attempt. The digital equivalent of half a side of A4 would probably have sufficed, and then we would have all been free to move on with our lives. Nevertheless I am a thwarted little homunculus of a man, and my dreams are correspondingly stunted. The simple fact is that I did not wish to be the only bloke around here without at least a Part Two to his name. Such is human vanity. But on the one hand I do not have a great deal else with which to occupy my time and, on the other, if you are still gamely wading through this appalling verbiage then in all likelihood neither do you. Onwards and upwards, Comrades!

PS  I’ve also had to have a word with the Editor about this chappie he’s got in to do the recordings for the audiobook versions of the articles: this leaden voiced, minimum Equity wage Rent-A-Thesp that he’s obviously dredged up from the first theatrical agency that he came to in the phone book.  I suggested, perfectly reasonably, that Brian Blessed might be a better representation of my orotund and genial tones. Or that Cyril Fletcher might do at a pinch. I haven’t seen old Cyril on the telly for ages, and he might be glad of the gig. Oh, the Editor tried to fob me off with a lot of technological fiddlefaddle, but I refused to be distracted.  I made my case plain, and I am quietly confident of the outcome. We shall see.

That is all.

Mr Skinner’s Pigeon-Guided Missile

A very great deal could be said about the late B. F. Skinner but, in the context in which we meet him here, it is sufficient to note that he was an American psychologist who began his career in the 1930’s and who had a particular interest in the study of animal behaviour, or Ethology as the discipline is formally known. Unusually for a trick cyclist, Skinner was also a hands-on, practical sort of chap. For example, to celebrate the birth of his daughter, Skinner designed and built a device known as the Air Crib. This was a glass sided, air conditioned box into which the infant could be placed for extended periods, thus relieving the new mother of all that tiresome nurturing business and leaving her free to live a useful and productive life. Skinner’s daughter spent the first eleven months of her life in the Air Crib. She is now an ‘artist’, lives in London and writes letters to the Guardian. You may judge for yourself the impact that the Air Crib had on her early psychological development.

By 1943 it was clear that the War was shifting in the Allies’ favour. But there were certain spheres where the Germans still had superiority. One such area was missile guidance technology, and by the summer of ’43 the Allies had serious worries.

The Germans had developed a remote control guidance system, the Kehl-Strassburg, which was proving particularly devastating when deployed on air to surface anti-shipping ordnance. During the Salerno landings the system was deployed for the first time, and five Allied ships, including the cruiser USS Savannah and the battleship HMS Warspite were hit by bombs using the Kehl-Strassburg system and either crippled or sunk.

It took the allies a little while to cotton on to the reason behind this sudden increase in the effectiveness of German naval airstrikes, but the recovery of a Kehl-Strassburg unit from a crashed German bomber on Corsica a few weeks later made matters plain. Allied Supreme Command decided that their own anti-shipping weapons were lagging behind, and recognized the need to bridge the gap.

By modern standards, Kehl-Strassburg was not particularly sophisticated: the bombardier in the aircraft controlled the bomb using a joystick attached to the sender unit, and the receiver unit accordingly made adjustments to the bomb’s flight by altering the pitch of the fins and rudders on the tail end of the bomb. The bombardier also needed to maintain a line of sight to both target and bomb. Crude, perhaps, but demonstrably effective. Professor Skinner thought he knew of a better solution: pigeons.

Skinner had spent a lot of his working life in the company of pigeons. He developed the Operant Conditioning Chamber, which delivered food to the pigeons when they pecked at the appropriate spot and slight electric shocks when they didn’t; he determined that pigeons are superstitious; and he also taught them to play ping pong, which is nice and must have given the little chaps something to do on their days off. If any man ever knew the character and capabilities of the pigeon, it was B. F. Skinner.

Skinner’s idea was simple. Train pigeons in the Conditioning Chamber to peck at the centre of a picture of a ship. Once fully conditioned to do this, they would then be installed in a compartment in the nose cone of the bomb or missile. The nose cone had lenses mounted in it which projected an image of the target on a screen mounted in the pigeon’s compartment. This screen was mounted on pivots, and was fitted with sensors that measured directional movement. The pigeon was in front of this screen, and when he saw the image of the ship he would peck at it. As long as the target remained in the center of the screen, the screen would not move, but if the bomb began to go off track, the image would move towards the edge of the screen. The pigeon would follow the image, pecking at it, which would move the screen on its pivots and this would signal the bomb’s ailerons to move appropriately to keep the bomb on target.

Unsurprisingly the Military were sceptical of Skinner’s idea, cancelling the project after twelve months. “Our problem was that we were not taken seriously” Skinner lamented at the time. Though I’m sure that the $25,000 R&D grant he received for the study, a lot of money in those days, went some way to mitigate his disappointment.


I was going to shoehorn another couple of subjects in here, but I’ve managed to pad the above out so fulsomely that there doesn’t really seem to be any need. Plus I’ve got a taste for having my articles in numbered parts now, and I’ll be damned if I’m stopping at a measly two. Onwards, and indeed upwards, Comrades!

© Bobo 2018

Audio file