One of the more unusual ideas proposed by the BIR [British Board of Invention and Research] involved dragging a dummy periscope behind a ship while food was discharged nearby. The aim was to attract a flock of seagulls to the periscope and, following repeated runs, condition the birds to associate periscopes with a good meal. Ergo, anytime a periscope popped above the surface, a flock of seagulls would beeline towards it giving the game away.
Physics World

Variations of this claim can also be found on Explain XKCD; BirdNote; Audubon; and Today I Found Out. I didn't find evidence to support the claim on any of these sites.

Question: In WWI, did the British Board of Invention and Research propose conditioning seagulls to associate a submarine's periscope with food?

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    I think it's worth remembering that "innovation" committees, especially in wartime, "consider" pretty much everything that is suggested to them, no matter how crazy sounding. A lot of inventions sound pretty crazy the first time you hear them. Commented Feb 3, 2020 at 14:24
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    Yeah, coming up with crazy shit anyone else considers ridiculous, and then seeing if it could be made to work, is kind of their job. As it turns out, a committee like that is fairly low maintenance and even if only one in a hundred ideas turns out to actually work the ROI is huge. Commented Feb 3, 2020 at 15:47
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    I remember seeing an interview with the guy in charge of the WWII equivalent committee who said that 99% of the ideas they got were crazy, and that he could achieve 99% "correctness" by just rejecting them all. But that wouldn't find the 1% that might make a difference. Commented Feb 3, 2020 at 17:31

1 Answer 1


According to Lusitania (1972):

Inglefield's other brain child was to attempt to train seagulls to defecate on periscopes, and for a short while a remote corner of Poole harbour in Dorset was littered with dummy periscopes and hopefully incontinent seagulls.

"Inglefield" means Admiral Frederick Inglefield.

Another 1972 book, The killing time: the U-boat war, 1914-18, says:

Another suggestion actually investigated by the Board of Invention and Research involved training seagulls to follow periscopes

The 1943 book The Death Ray Man: The Biography of Grindell Matthews, Inventor and Pioneer says:

The Admiralty advisers, barren of ideas, grasped frantically even at the feathers of the seabirds' tails, and could see nothing incongruous in teaching seagulls that periscopes meant food. Their plan was to release the birds, who, conscious of their great part in Britain's anti-submarine defence, would immediately gather around the periscope of any enemy underwater craft which broke through the waves of the English Channel!

There is a detailed February 1918 article To Train Seagulls as "Spotters" for Submarines The Guide to Nature, volume 10, pages 276-277 which instead credits Dr. A. D. Pentz, Jr. of Long Island, New York, with the idea. So it seems this idea was considered for US and UK waters.

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