In the early 1940s, Keller and
Marian Breland interrupted their graduate studies under B.F. Skinner in
order to help him develop the Project Pigeon for the U.S. war effort. The
result was a classic study that is important in the History of
Psychology. The project was conducted under Skinner's direction at the
top of a General Mills’ grain elevator in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Other
persons involved in this project besides the Brelands included William K.
Estes and Norman Guttman.
By using trained pigeons and
hydraulic guidance, Skinner and his team developed a method to create the
first smart-bomb that could be guided to its target with great accuracy in
order to save innocent lives. In those days, there were no guided
missiles. When a bombardier dropped a bomb from a plane, he could
only hope that it would reach its target. The project was never put to
use but remains an early lesson in the power of operant conditioning and
the technology that makes it possible. The Brelands claimed that they
first recognize the great power of operant conditioning when they observed
Skinner shape the behavior of a pigeon with an automatic feeder one
afternoon while helping him on Project Pigeon. It was soon after this
that the Brelands decided to make their living by applying these concepts
and its technology to animal behavior in a grand way at the level of a
“tour de force."