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July 25, 2006

The Aircrib: B.F. Skinner's Baby-In-A-Box

aircrib_vintage.jpgDuring the last few train and plane trips, I've been trying to finish up Ann Hulbert's history of modern childrearing experts, Raising America; turns out all the great gear is in the second half.

Like Harvard behaviorist psychologist BF Skinner's Baby Tender, which he designed and built for his second child, Deborah. The 1945 Ladies Home Journal article about the Baby Tender started out promisingly enough:

When we decided to have another child, my wife and I felt that it was time to apply a little labor-saving invention and design to the problems of the nursery. We began by going over the disheartening schedule of the young mother, step by step. We asked only one question: Is this practice important for the physical and psychological health of the baby? When it was not, we marked it for elimination. Then the "gadgeteering" began.
And with its pre-minimalist lines, safety glass front, counter-height crib/changing table, and climate- and humidity-control, the Baby Tender itself was a little bit of awesome. The idea was a crib that wasn't a cage, but a baby-sized room.

The trouble started almost immediately, though, with the title of the LHJ article: "Baby in a Box." See, Skinner's other brand-name contribution to science is the Skinner Box, which is used for testing animals and rewarding them with food pellets. Almost immediately, people started conflating the two, and rumors started swirling--until at least 2004, even--that after Skinner locked his kid in a box for 2 1/2 years, she grew up to sue him for abuse before killing herself. [The daughter angrily denies killing herself in a Guardian UK article, "I was not a lab rat."]


But back to the Baby Tender. Hulbert writes that "Skinner spent a decade vainly trying to find a manufacturer to produce and popularize the self-cleaning, temperature-controlled bin that he touted as the hands-off environment infants required for optimum growth. One shyster turned out a couple of shoddy models under the name "Heir Conditioner," and the Aircrib Corporation that finally went into business in 1957 sold at most a thousand cribs in the next decade." [p.244]

In 1995, a researcher at SDSU tracked down 50 people who had been raised in Aircribs. "The outcome? Positive results across the board...Alas, the Aircrib probably doesn't have much of a future. Major companies have little incentive to mass-produce it because it can't be protected by patents. (After all, you can't get a patent on a small room.) " [This gets published in Psych Today?? Forget the patent nonsense; what if the reason they couldn't find the other 250 was because they grew up to be psychotic hobos?]

Forget the major companies. There are/were plans published for building your own Aircrib. And the original Skinner Family Aircrib is on view at the Univ. of Akron, part of the Archives of American Psychology. I'm kind of booked up working on a box for my own kid, but the Aircrib's just waiting for an entrepreneurial dad-to-be to do a little digging, roadtripping, and gadgeteering, and we'll have a whole new generation of babies in boxes in no time.

Baby In A Box, Ladies Home Journal, Oct. 1945 [archive.org]
BF Skinner and the Baby Box[snopes.com]

posted July 25, 2006 2:57 PM | add to del.icio.us | digg this


Great post.

I think it's safe to say the reason nobody wanted to mass produce it was because it fills people with an unsettling sense of dread. Is that blue one really lined with newspaper?

And I can't quite figure out how putting a kid in a laboratory cabinet passed the "Is this practice important for the physical and psychological health of the baby?" test.

[I think those are clippings on display. It's incredible--but not surprising, given Skinner's godlike legacy in the behaviorist movement, where stimulus/response and environmental factors were everything--reading the article how closely tied temperament was to, say, temperature. Kid crying? Kid hungry too early? Warm her up a notch... -ed.]

posted by: Scott at July 25, 2006 6:44 PM

Sorry, just gotta ask the question -- how is putting a baby in a cage with bars important for the physical and psychological health of the baby?

My siblings and I were raised in Skinner boxes - the baby box kind -- and I raised my own daughter in one. It's a fantastic device -- far superior to a standard crib.

My daughter wore only a diaper to bed, bounded around her box with great abandon (no night clothes to constrict her) when she woke in the middle of the night, and was always greeted eyeball to eyeball when she got up after naps or sleeping at night. She always went right back to sleep after her nocturnal romps, too -- possibly because she was never uncomfortbly hot or cold.

No stupid bumper pads either, so when she was lying down, as a newborn and later, she could see across the room. No sheets, blankets, etc., either -- just mesh on a stretcher, easily rinsed off as needed. (No SIDS, either -- no blankets to tangle up in, no mattress to suffocate a face-down baby.) The fantastically reduced laundry quantity meant more time with her.

She loved it, and when I worked in the same room in the mornings, I would hear her waking up behind me and telling stories to her bear for a few minutes before chirping to me in the morning.

Could it be abused? Oh yeah -- but how many people stuff the baby in a distant bedroom don't have a clue the kid's awake until it wails? Not an issue with a Skinner box.

I was part of a survey (quite likely the one you mention) of former box babies. As I recall, the questions were quite extensive. I suspect the poor response rate had a fair amount to do with the amount of time it took to complete the thing. I was highly motivated -- family members knew Skinner, and my experience with the box -- both generations -- was fabulous.

Oh, yes. When I was a kid, we had a miniature one for dolls, too. They turned out just fine, too.

posted by: Marty at July 26, 2006 9:23 PM
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