Mathematical Treasure: B. F. Skinner’s Arithmetic Teaching Machine

Peggy Aldrich Kidwell (National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

Early B. F. Skinner teaching machine, designed for teaching arithmetic, 1954.

B.F. Skinner Teaching Machine, 1954, Smithsonian Institution negative number NMAH-82-6211

In the years following World War II, American school enrollments boomed. One parent, the behavioral psychologist and Harvard University faculty member B. F. Skinner, noted that students might benefit from machines that gave extra opportunities for drill. Skinner, who had first designed machines to teach laboratory animals, designed this instrument to teach children elementary arithmetic.

The hinged lid extending over the top covers a punched paper tape. A window in the lid reveals one problem at a time. In front of the window is a set of six levers that allows the user to input a number, giving the answer to the question. The machine was exhibited at a conference on psychology and the behavioral sciences held in March 1954 at the University of Pittsburgh.

A range of machines proposed to encourage learning—not always of mathematics—are described in a National Museum of American History web object group with address

Index of Mathematical Treasures

Index of Mathematical Objects