WTF Fun Fact 13307 – Project Pigeon

During World War II, the United States government developed a program to train pigeons to guide missiles to their targets. This program was known as Project Pigeon or Project Orcon. It was developed by psychologist B.F. Skinner and was intended to provide an alternative to radio-controlled guidance systems, which were vulnerable to jamming and interference.

Using animals in technology

The idea behind Project Pigeon was simple: Skinner would train pigeons to peck at a target on a screen, and their pecking guided a missile to its target. To prove this, Skinner trained the pigeons to associate the target with food and were able to peck accurately and consistently, even under stressful conditions.

The military ultimately discontinued the program in favor of other guidance systems. But the concept of using animals to guide technology has continued to be a topic of interest and research in modern times. Today, researchers are exploring the use of trained animals such as dogs, rats, and even bees to detect and respond to various stimuli, including explosives, drugs, and diseases.

What was Project Pigeon?

During World War II, the United States government needed to develop an effective guidance system for missiles and other weapons. Radio-controlled systems had proved vulnerable to jamming and interference, and researchers were eager to explore alternative approaches.

Psychologist BF Skinner believed that he could train animals to guide missiles to their targets. His idea was based on the principle of operant conditioning, which he had developed through his work with laboratory animals.

The basic idea behind Skinner’s approach was to train pigeons to associate a target on a screen with the release of food. He then placed the pigeons in the nose of a missile, where they would peck at the target on the screen. This would send signals to the missile’s guidance system and steer it toward its target.

Skinner’s idea eventually received support from the military. The military developed it into a program known as Project Pigeon or Project Orcon. They trained of hundreds of pigeons, housing them in special compartments in the nose of the missile.

While the program never saw actual use in combat, it did succeed in demonstrating the potential of animal-guided technology.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “B.F. Skinner’s Pigeon-Guided Rocket” — Smithsonian Magazine

WTF Fun Fact 13150 – When Moscow Ran Out of Vodka

On May 9, 1945, reports that Nazi Germany had surrendered to the USSR resulted in a 22-hour celebration. The Soviets partied so hard that the entire country briefly ran out of vodka.

How the Soviets ran out of vodka

On May 9, 1945, a radio report in the USSR announced that Germany had officially surrendered to the Soviet Union. There was every reason to celebrate immediately. Joseph Stalin, the country’s leader, would address citizens later that day, but revelers were too overjoyed to wait.

While the country probably wasn’t entirely devoid of vodka, those who stayed up to celebrate drank the store shelves dry. And grain was in short supply in wartime, leaving few vodka reserves on hand to replenish the shelves.

War History Online notes that in the book History of Russia, author Walter Moss wrote, “During the famine of the early 1930s, Stalin ensured that sufficient grain and potatoes were still available for vodka production, and vodka revenues in this period provided about one-fifth of government revenues.”

There was also a state monopoly on alcohol. Stalin made its production a national priority, even during the widespread famine. So it’s likely that the shortage didn’t last long since vodka production never stopped.

In any case, by the time Stalin officially addressed the nation on that fateful day in 1945, those who hadn’t celebrated had to find another way to do so. Those who had were probably nursing one heck of a hangover.

Accounts of the vodka shortage

According to Mental Floss (cited below): “As one reporter put it, ‘I was lucky to buy a liter of vodka at the train station when I arrived because it was impossible to buy any later… There was no vodka in Moscow on May 10; we drank it all.‘”

War History Online quoted naval navigator Nikolai Kryuchkov, who recalled:

“On May 9, 1945, with the permission of the commander, I left for 3 days in Moscow. It was impossible to tell what happened on that day in Moscow…. We celebrated Victory Day with my family, the owner’s apartments and neighbors. They drank for the victory, for those who did not live to see this day and for the fact that this bloody massacre would never be repeated. On May 10, it was impossible to buy vodka in Moscow, because it was completely drunk.”  WTF fun facts

Source: “The Time Russia Ran Out of Vodka” — Mental Floss

WTF Fun Fact 12937 – Queen Elizabeth Bought Wedding Dress With Ration Coupons

In light of the death of Queen Elizabeth II yesterday, it’s always interesting to look back and see how things were different over the 96 years during which she was alive. While there are plenty of opinions to be found, we’ll stick to what has been recorded as fact, such as the Queen’s purchase of her wedding dress using WWII ration coupons.

Queen Elizabeth’s wedding dress ration coupons

First of all, at the time of her marriage, Elizabeth was a princess – and one who had volunteered with the British Armed Forces during WWII.

Two years after the war, on Nov 20, 1947, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor married Philip Mountbatten. While the war was over, austerity measures were still in place. And while you certainly can’t tell by looking at the royal wedding, the glamorous gown was made with the help of war ration coupons.

She was given 200 extra ration coupons, which she put towards the dress that she got married in at Westminster Abbey.

According to British Heritage (cited below), “she was also given hundreds of clothing coupons by brides-to-be from all parts of the country to help her acquire the dress. She had to return these coupons as it was illegal for them to have been given away in the first instance.”

Creating Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding dress

Just because it was a dress purchased in light of austerity measures doesn’t mean it was austere. In fact, the purchase was more of a gesture to the people.

“The dress was designed by Norman Hartnell. His signature was always said to be embroidery. The designer enjoyed working with soft, floating fabrics, particularly tulle and chiffon, and with plain, lustrous silks…The dress was made of Chinese silk, with a high neckline, tailored bodice, and a short train…The ivory silk gown had a 13-foot-long train with a pattern inspired by a Botticelli painting and was bedecked in crystals and 10,000 seed pearls imported from America.”

It is said that the coupons went towards some of the extra flair involved.

She would become queen less than a decade after her wedding.  WTF fun facts

Source: “Queen Elizabeth II bought her wedding dress with WWII ration coupons” — British Heritage

WTF Fun Fact 12651 – The Military Researchers Who Turned a Cat Into a Phone

Have you ever wanted to turn a cat into a telephone? We haven’t either. But in 1929, two Princeton University researchers gave it a go anyway. Apparently, they weren’t cat lovers.

Professor Ernest Glen Wever and his research assistant Charles William Bray performed the experiment that involved a live but unconscious (thankfully!) cat in order to see how the auditory nerve perceives sound.

That’s a fancy way of saying they sedated a cat, opened its skull, accessed its auditory nerve, and attached a telephone wire to it. The other end of the wire was connected to a telephone receiver.

While many of us may turn up our noses at the thought of animal research, it has saved and improved many human lives. Bray and Wever weren’t even interested in making a cat into a telephone for any practical purpose (not that we could even think of one anyway). Instead, they were interested in the research methods used to run the tests, which paved the way for more sophisticated research on human hearing and made contributions to devices called cochlear implants that convert sound vibrations into electrical signals in the brain for deaf people.

Despite not caring much about creating a cat phone, the experiment did work, and Bray was able to speak into the cat’s ears while Wever listened through the receiver 50 feet away in a soundproof room.

Princeton’s Mudd Manuscript Library wrote a blog describing it in more detail. They say:

“The common notion during this time was that the frequency of the response of a sensory nerve is correlated to the intensity of the stimulus. In the case of the auditory nerve, as a sound becomes louder, the frequency or pitch of the sound received by the ear should be higher. When Bray made a sound with a certain frequency, Wever heard the sound from the receiver at the same frequency. As Bray increased the pitch of the sound, the frequency of the sound Wever heard also increased. This experiment proved that the frequency of the response in the auditory nerve is correlated to the frequency of the sound.”

Wever and Bray received the first Howard Crosby Warren Medal of Society by the Society of Experimental Psychologists in 1936 for the experiment.

Later, both men entered military research. Bray became the Associate Research Director of the U.S. Air Force Human Resources Research and then served on the civilian psychological research team for the National Defense Research Council and the Navy. Wever became a consultant to the National Research Council on anti-submarine warfare.

And cats worldwide likely rejoiced that they found other things to do. – WTF fun facts

Source: “The Cat Telephone” — Mudd Manuscript Library Blog

WTF Fun Fact 12646 – The Power of the Musical Birthday Card

Ok, to be fair, there wasn’t much computing power available to the Allied forces during WWII. But it’s really more about something called Moore’s Law.

According to Michio Kaku’s book Physics of the Future:

“Moore’s law simply says that computer power doubles every eighteen months. First stated in 1965 by Gordon Moore, one of the founders of the Intel Corporation, this simple law has helped to revolutionize the world economy, generated fabulous new wealth, and irreversibly altered our way of life. When you plot the plunging price of computer chips and their rapid advancements in speed, processing power, and memory, you find a remarkably straight line going back fifty years. (This is plotted on a logarithmic curve. In fact, if you extend the graph, so that it includes vacuum tube technology and even mechanical hand-crank adding machines, the line can be extended over 100 years into the past.)

Exponential growth is often hard to grasp, since our minds think linearly. It often starts deceptively slowly. It is so gradual that you sometimes cannot experience the change at all. But over decades, it can completely alter everything around us.

According to Moore’s Law, every Christmas your computer games are almost twice as powerful (in terms of memory and processing speed) as they were the previous year. Furthermore, as the years pass, this incremental gain becomes truly monumental. For example, when you receive a birthday card in the mail, it often has a chip which sings “Happy Birthday” to you. Remarkably, that chip has more computer power than all the Allied Forces of 1945. Hitler, Churchill, or Roosevelt might have killed to get that chip. But what do we do with it?  After the birthday, we throw the card and chip away.  Today, your cell phone has more computer power than all of NASA back in 1969 when it sent two astronauts to the moon. Video games, which consume enormous amounts of computer power to simulate 3D situations, use more computer power than main frame computers of the previous decade. The Sony Playstation of today, which costs $300, has the power of a military supercomputer of 1997, which cost millions of dollars.

– WTF fun facts

Source: “Your cell phone has more computing power than NASA circa 1969” — Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

WTF Fun Fact 12424 – Marilyn Monroe’s Drone Skills

At 18-years-old, Norma Jeane Dougherty was the wife of a U.S. merchant seaman who worked in a factory for Radioplane in Burbank, California. Founded by actor Reginald Denny, the company made remote-controlled, pilotless aircraft – also known as drones.

Of course, in the 1940s, the word “drone” didn’t carry the baggage it does today. These drones were used to perfect the targeting skills of U.S. soldiers in the Army and Navy. Then came D-Day and Operation Aphrodite, in which similar drones were packed with explosives and used to bomb Nazi sites after the pilots ejected.

Back on the homefront, Norma Jean Dougherty ignored advice to quit her 10 hour/day drone factory job (where she sprayed and inspected parachutes) for fear it would ruin her hair and skin. Already a beauty, she was later named “Queen” of the company picnic and awarded a $50 war bond. She continued to work.

A year later, Norma Jean was photographed in color film (rare at the time) while holding a Radioplane propeller to show the role of women in the war effort. It’s part of what helped turn her into a star. She would soon change her name to Marilyn Monroe and leave the factory for Hollywood. – WTF Fun Facts

Source: Marilyn Monroe’s World War II Drone Program — The New York Times

WTF Fun Fact 12421 – Taking the Leap

In 1944, an American B-29 pilot named Claude Hensinger had to parachute out of his aircraft after his engine caught fire over Japan. He made it safely to the ground in China and used the parachute to keep him warm that night until he was rescued the following day. He returned home safely, holding onto the device that saved his life.

Later that year, he met his future wife, Ruth, and they were engaged in 1947. Instead of a ring, Hensinger proposed with the parachute.

This is the parachute that saved my life. I want you to make a wedding gown out of it,” Hensinger told his fiance.

The Smithsonian, which houses the dress (though it’s not on display), described the circumstances behind its creation:

“This wedding dress was made from a nylon parachute that saved the groom’s life during World War II. Maj. Claude Hensinger, a B-29 pilot, and his crew, were returning from a bombing raid over Yowata, Japan, in August 1944 when their engine caught fire. The crew was forced to bail out. It was night, and Major Hensinger landed on some rocks and suffered some minor injuries. During the night, he used the parachute both as a pillow and a blanket. In the morning, the crew was able to reassemble and were taken in by some friendly Chinese. He kept the parachute and used it as a way to propose to Ruth in 1947. He presented it to her and suggested she make a gown out of it for their wedding.”

At first, Ruth had no idea how to turn the giant parachute into a dress. But after walking by a store window and seeing a dress that resembled Scarlett O’Hara’s in Gone with the Wind (the one she made from curtains), it all came together. Ruth worked with a local seamstress to make a bodice and veil, and she used the parachute to make the skirt on her own.

According to the Smithsonian:

“She made the skirt herself; she pulled up the strings on the parachute so that the dress would be shorter in the front and have a train in the back. The couple were married in the Neffs Lutheran Church in Neffs, Pennslyvania, July 19, 1947. Their daughter and their son’s bride also wore the dress for their weddings.” – WTF Fun Facts

Source: “Parachute Wedding Dress” – The Smithsonian Institute