In my search for information on failed software development projects, I was frequently reminded of the fact that it’s not always software projects that fail. In many cases, I even wondered why these projects were even started in the first place. Some of them seem to come straight from a Monty Python movie – downright absurd. Needless to say that their eventual cost far outweighed the benefits, if any.
I discovered* that wartime was a true breeding ground for many beautiful and poetic failures. Anything goes when there’s an enemy waiting to be crushed in the most creative ways possible:
- The Acoustic Kitty project:
A CIA project in the 1960s attempting to use cats in spy missions. A battery and a microphone were implanted into a cat and an antenna into its tail. Due to problems with distraction, the cat’s sense of hunger had to be addressed in another operation. Surgical and training expenses are thought to have amounted to over $20 million. The cat’s first mission was eavesdropping on two men in a park. The cat was released nearby, but was hit and killed by a taxi almost immediately. Shortly thereafter the project was considered a failure and declared to be a total loss.
- Operation Cornflakes:
A World War II mission in 1944 and 1945 which involved tricking the German postal service Deutsche Reichspost into inadvertently delivering anti-Nazi propaganda to German citizens through mail. The operation involved special planes that were instructed to airdrop bags of false, but properly addressed mail in the vicinity of bombed mail trains. When recovering the mail during clean-up of the wreck, the postal service would hopefully confuse the false mail for the real thing and deliver it to the various addresses. The content was mainly anti-Nazi-propaganda. In addition, the postage stamps used were subtly designed to resemble the standard stamp with Adolf Hitler’s face, but a close examination would reveal that his face is made to look like an exposed skull or similarly unflattering imagery. The first mission of Operation Cornflakes took place in February 1945, when a mail train to Linz was bombed. Bags containing a total of about 3800 propaganda letters were then dropped at the site of the wreck, which were subsequently picked up and delivered to Germans by the postal service. Not too sure how many German families were converted by these letters.
- The Bat Bomb project:
Bat bombs were bomb-shaped casings with numerous compartments, each containing a Mexican bat with a small timed incendiary bomb attached. Dropped from a bomber at dawn, the casings would deploy a parachute in mid-flight and open to release the bats which would then roost in eaves and attics. The incendiaries would start fires in inaccessible places in the largely wood and paper construction of the Japanese cities that were the weapon’s intended target. Eventually, the program was cancelled it became clear that wouldn’ t be combat ready until mid-1945. By that time it was estimated that $2 million had been spent on the project. It is thought that development of the bat bomb was moving too slowly, and was overtaken in the race for a quick end to the war by the atomic bomb project.
- Project Pigeon: .
During World War II, Project Pigeon was B.F. Skinner‘s attempt to develop a pigeon-guided missile. The control system involved a lens at the front of the missile projecting an image of the target to a screen inside, while a pigeon trained to recognize the target pecked at it. As long as the pecks remained in the center of the screen, the missile would fly straight, but pecks off-center would cause the screen to tilt, which would then, via a connection to the missile’s flight controls, cause the missile to change course. Although skeptical of the idea, the National Defense Research Committee nevertheless contributed $25,000 to the research. Skinner’s plan to use pigeons in Pelican missiles was considered too eccentric and impractical; although he had some success with the training, he could not get his idea taken seriously. The program was canceled on October 8, 1944, because the military believed that “further prosecution of this project would seriously delay others which in the minds of the Division have more immediate promise of combat application.”
It’s probably no coincidence that the majority of these projects involved animals. In that case, failure is certainly an option – I heard that working with animals is highly unpredictable, hard to manage and time-consuming.
Strange, isn’t that what they say about software development too?