The Perfect Baby Blog

The hottest baby invention of 1945: The lab-rat crib!

Friday, July 24th, 2009

Cozy-looking, isn’t it? Conceived by Harvard behavioral psychologist, BF Skinner, for his second child, Deborah, this “crib” was born of the best intentions. Observing the heavy toll his wife’s parenting regimen took on her, Skinner set out to simplify it. Though not by pitching in himself…


HOME, SICK, HOME: Climate controlled!

He created this baby-sized room, known as the “Baby Tender,” in which the new infant could live—more or less continuously. Sound-proofed, self-cleaning, and climate-controlled (“78 degrees, with a relative humidity of 50 percent”), it reduced the family’s laundry load: “Why not dispense with clothing altogether,” Skinner posited, “except for the diaper and warm the space in which the baby lives?”

Too warm? Cool it down before little Deborah fusses or cries, vastly reducing Mrs. Skinner’s need to soothe her. (Scroll down for a touching image of mother, child, and box.)

The crisply designed “apparatus” got a bad rap right from the start. When Skinner enthusiastically but nerdily outlined its merits for the Ladies Home Journal in 1945, the article, titled “Baby in a Box,” raised eyebrows. Since BF’s other big invention was a case for testing animals (and rewarding them with food-pellets), people assumed the worst.

Rumors flourished that baby Deborah, “locked” in her box, failed to appreciate its comforts. According to the stories, she promptly became psychotic, growing up to sue her father and commit suicide.

Not so, declared a distinctly undead Deborah decades later, in a spirited defense of her father’s methods published in the (U.K.) Guardian.

Still, it’s easy to see how folks got the wrong idea. When Skinner published his Journal piece, Deborah had been in the “Baby Tender” box for 11 months, and, as he noted, not everyone sensed its brilliance:

A few critics have objected that they would not like to live in such a compartment—they feel that it would stifle them or give them claustrophobia. The baby obviously does not share in this opinion. The compartment is well-ventilated and more spacious than a Pullman berth, considering the size of the occupant.

Another early objection was that the baby would be socially starved and robbed of the affection and mother love, which she needs. This has simply not been true. The compartment does not ostracize the baby. The large window is no more of a social barrier than the bars of a crib.

Despite its roominess and obvious potential to increase his daughter’s social circle, the box, he admitted, was hardly a long-term solution:

How long do we intend to keep the baby in the compartment?….almost certainly until she is two years old, or perhaps three.

Even then, once Deborah had achieved the “wider range and variety of behavior” that comes from living without clothing—”our baby acquitted an amusing, almost apelike skill in the use of her feet”—the plan was to let her wander away from the prototype occasionally and really see the world:

After the first year, she will spend a fair part of each day in a playpen…

Or even “outdoors.” Rechristened the Aircrib when it was commercially produced in 1957, Skinner’s box mysteriously failed to catch on.


SKINNER'S CRIB IN ACTION: Note slide-out tray, pivoting display-case window, and little Deborah's evident bliss.

(Via DaddyTypes, via BoingBoing)

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