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Consider the Pigeon, a Surprisingly Capable Technology

For point-to-point communication, nothing beats a pigeon. Except, occasionally, a hawk

6 min read
In the 1970s, the CIA developed a tiny camera that turned homing pigeons into spies.
Avian Espionage: In the 1970s, the CIA developed a tiny camera that turned homing pigeons into spies.
Photo: CIA Museum

For thousands of years, homing pigeons have been carrying messages. They proved especially useful during wartime. Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, and the Duke of Wellington (at the Battle of Waterloo) are all said to have relied on bird-borne communications. During World War I, the U.S. Army Signal Corps and Navy maintained pigeon lofts. The French government awarded one U.S. bird, named Cher Ami, the Croix de Guerre for her valiant service during the Battle of Verdun. During World War II, the British maintained more than 250,000 homing pigeons, 32 of which were awarded the Dickin Medal, an honor bestowed on animals for wartime service.

Leave it to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to turn pigeons into spies. In the 1970s, the CIA’s Office of Research and Development created a small, lightweight camera that could be strapped to a pigeon’s breast. After release, the bird would fly over its intended target, en route to its home base. A battery-operated motor inside the camera advanced the film and clicked the shutter. With a flight path just a few hundred meters above the ground, the pigeon cam took significantly more detailed photos than images taken from aircraft or satellites. So was the CIA’s pigeon cam a success? We don’t know. Its files remain classified to this day.

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How the Graphical User Interface Was Invented

Three decades of UI research came together in the mice, windows, and icons used today

18 min read
Stylized drawing of a desktop computer with mouse and keyboard, on the screen are windows, Icons, and menus
Getty Images/IEEE Spectrum

Mice, windows, icons, and menus: these are the ingredients of computer interfaces designed to be easy to grasp, simplicity itself to use, and straightforward to describe. The mouse is a pointer. Windows divide up the screen. Icons symbolize application programs and data. Menus list choices of action.

But the development of today’s graphical user interface was anything but simple. It took some 30 years of effort by engineers and computer scientists in universities, government laboratories, and corporate research groups, piggybacking on each other’s work, trying new ideas, repeating each other’s mistakes.

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