30 Cities Around the World That No Longer Exist

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An old Norwegian legend tells of a village that was left utterly depopulated by the Black Death, forgotten, and soon overgrown by moss and trees. Years later, a hunter missed a shot and his arrow hit the bell of what is now known as Hedal Stave Church, rediscovering this abandoned village.

Whatever the truth (or otherwise) of this legend, history is filled with cities that emerged and then were abandoned or forgotten. Some have been rediscovered, and others are still out there, waiting to be found.

1. STABIAE, ITALY

Mount Vesuvius
Paull Young, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When Vesuvius exploded in 79 CE, its most famous victims were the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, but other towns and villas were buried as well, places such as Boscoreale or Oplontis. The one with the oddest story though is Stabiae. Pliny the Elder recorded that the town had been destroyed by Sulla during the Social War in 89 BCE so completely that only a single farmhouse remained. At some point afterwards, the area was turned into luxury villas—that is, until the eruption of Vesuvius, which destroyed it once again.

In the mid-18th century, archaeologists discovered the ruins of both Pompeii and Stabiae. After some initial excavation work, focus was concentrated on Pompeii, and Stabiae was reburied to protect it. Eventually, the site was forgotten—until the 1950s, when a local high school principal decided to rediscover it. Working with the school’s janitor and a mechanic, they found several archaeological sites, and excavation continues today.

2. DEAD CITIES, SYRIA

Dead Cities, Syria
MEZAR MATAR/AFP/Getty Images

The Dead Cities are a group of around 40 villages in northern Syria that date to the 1st through 7th centuries CE. According to UNESCO, "the relict cultural landscape of the villages also constitutes an important illustration of the transition from the ancient pagan world of the Roman Empire to Byzantine Christianity." They were abandoned quickly, either due to shifting trade routes, weather changes, or a pattern of invasion between the Byzantines and the Umayyads.

But people are returning to the Dead Cities. In 2013, an NPR report described modern smokestacks on the landscape, as refugees began moving into the area.

3. CHAN CHAN, PERU

Chan Chan was the capital of the Chimu Kingdom, and is believed to have been the largest city in the Pre-Columbian Americas. The kingdom lasted from circa 900 to 1470, when it was conquered by the Inca. The city began a rapid decline afterwards, to the point that when the Spanish arrived the city had already been effectively abandoned.

4. HASHIMA ISLAND, JAPAN

Hashima Island, Japan
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Also known as Gunkanjima or Battleship Island, this small island off the coast of Japan is thought to have been the most densely populated place on the planet in the 1950s, with over 5000 people crammed onto a 16-acre island (that works out to a population density of 200,000 people per square mile; Manhattan is around a third of that). Made famous as the location of the villainous lair in the 2012 James Bond movie Skyfall, Hashima Island was operated for years by Mitsubishi as a coal mine. But when the mine closed in 1974, the island was abandoned.

5. BANNACK, MONTANA

An abandoned home in Bannack, Montana.
Edward Mitchell, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bannack is generally listed as the first boomtown in Montana: The population rose from a few hundred to thousands of individuals in just a few years after gold was discovered in a nearby creek in 1862. Sadly, by the time it was made Montana’s first territorial capital, the city was already in decline due to crime and other gold deposits being discovered elsewhere in the territory. Less than a year later the territorial capital was moved to Virginia City. In 1954 the state of Montana acquired most of the land, and today it's Bannack State Park.

6. EASTERN SETTLEMENT, GREENLAND

Eastern coast of Greenland.
Mariusz Kluzniak, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Founded by Norse explorers around 986 CE, it's estimated that at its largest, the Eastern Settlement in Greenland had around 5000 people living in the area. By the late 15th century the community had disappeared, leaving only ruins, with the last record of life there being a 1408 marriage between Thorstein Olafsson and Sigrid Björnsdottir. By the time Hans Egede arrived in the 1720s to convert the long-lost colonists to Lutheranism, the Norse Greenlanders had disappeared.

What happened to the settlement has long been debated, but recent archaeology has indicated that Greenland’s exports had ceased being in demand, and as the community became more and more remote, people began migrating back to more centralized communities in Norway, Iceland, and Denmark.

7. CONSONNO, ITALY

Consonno, Italy
Spline Splinson, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Consonno was originally a medieval town that survived for centuries with a small population of around 300. But in 1962, an entrepreneur named Mario Bagno arrived to convert the community into a Las Vegas-style resort town. Years of construction and demolition followed, until 1976, when a landslide isolated Consonno and ended Bagno's dream of a "City of Toys." The area remained abandoned until 2016, when it hosted an Italian hide-and-seek championship.

8. LOST CITY, FLORIDA

Waterway in the Everglades.
Mike Mahaffie, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to South Florida's Sun-Sentinel, deep in the Everglades there was a place called Lost City, and archaeologists have found evidence of human activity, from Seminoles to hiding Confederate soldiers, stretching back hundreds of years. For some reason though, activity spiked in the early 1900s when local legend says that Al Capone had a bootlegging operation there, thanks to the area's high ground and remote location.

9. FORT MOSE, FLORIDA

Location of Fort Mose.
Waters.Justin, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

In the late 17th and 18th centuries, Florida was an area of Spanish land next to several English colonies. In order to help protect against English encroachment and weaken the nearby colonies, the Spanish in Florida offered a form of asylum to escaped slaves in exchange for converting to Catholicism and serving Spain. This gave rise to Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, otherwise known as Fort Mose, on the outskirts of St. Augustine. While it was largely established to protect St. Augustine from British attack, the site is also the earliest known European-sanctioned free black community in the modern United States. The fort was destroyed in 1740 [PDF] and rebuilt, but lost much of its importance. After the Spanish gave Florida to Britain in 1763, the community moved to Cuba.

10. KOLMANSKOP, NAMIBIA

The abandoned town of Kolmanskop, Namibia.
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

In the early 20th century, Kolmanskop played host to European opera companies, an orchestra, and even the southern hemisphere's first X-ray unit. The city was built on an extremely productive diamond field (the BBC estimates that it produced a million carats of diamond in 1912, 12 percent of the world’s production that year). Eventually, World War I and the discovery of larger deposits further south led to the abandonment of the city.

11. CENTRALIA, PENNSYLVANIA

Smoke coming up from cracked concrete in Centralia, Pennsylvania.
DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

In 1960, the population of Centralia, Pennsylvania was 1435 people. By 2010 it was 10. Although the city was already on the decline, it was a decades-long coal fire that killed the city. Although there are some dissenters, it's generally agreed that in 1962, some trash was set on fire and the fire spread to a coal seam. The fire continued to burn and, among other scary events, in 1981 a 13-year-old boy narrowly escaped falling into a hole that opened up in the ground. The government bought most of the remaining citizens out, but a few residents fought to be able to live out their lives there.

12. LITTLE AMERICA, ANTARCTICA

Aerial view of Antarctica.
Eli Duke, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

There were five Little Americas over the course of several decades. One of them even featured an American post office and had a newspaper documenting the goings-on. In fact, the only odd part was that it was in Antarctica. Robert Byrd set up the first Little America in 1928, expanded it in 1933-'35, and started a new Little America further north in 1940; two more would eventually follow.

As part of the 1933 Little America, Charles Anderson was sent to run a post office (the Smithsonian has his safe, labeled "U.S. Post Office, Little America, South Pole"). The purpose of this post office was entirely so that philatelists could get a cancellation mark from Antarctica. To get it they had to pay three cents for the stamp and 50 cents to the Byrd Antarctic Expedition; it was a success—anywhere from 150,000 to 240,000 [PDF] letters were stamped before the post office was discontinued in 1935.

As for the Little Americas, they've drifted out to sea on icebergs and have disappeared.

13. TRELLECH, WALES

Area around Trellech.
Andy Walker, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

According to ancient tax rolls, the second largest town in 13th century Wales was likely Trellech, which comprised about 400 buildings before being destroyed, most likely due to a combination of attacks, fire, and disease.

In early 2017, newspapers around the world reported the discovery of Trellech. The story is that in 2002 archaeology graduate Stuart Wilson, working at a tollbooth, learned of a farmer who found pottery shards kicked up by moles. Years later, the property came up for sale and Wilson bought it, hoping to find Trellech, which he claims that he did. Meanwhile, other researchers have criticized the results saying that they're overblown and archaeological work was being done in the broad area before. As for Wilson, he hopes to start a campsite at the area and continues digging.

14. HUMBERSTONE, CHILE

Abandoned town of Humberstone, Chile.
MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, saltpeter was huge business as a fertilizer, and much of it came from the Atacama Desert in South America. One of these mining towns was Humberstone, but the modern UNESCO area contained over 200 saltpeter works and dozens of towns popped up. When synthetic fertilizers began appearing, however, saltpeter lost its importance and the cities faded away.

15. AKROTIRI, GREECE

Excavation of Akrotiri, Greece
Bruno Vanbesien, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Today, Santorini is a picturesque tourist spot, but many visitors don't realize it is located on the remnants of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in human history. Called the Thera or Minoan eruption, it was likely around 4 times the size of Krakatoa. One of the settlements on the island at the time of the eruption nearly 3600 years ago was Akrotiri. Like Pompeii, it was buried by the volcano, but unlike that famed excavation site, there's a noticeable lack of bodies at Akrotiri, indicating that the population had enough warning to escape before the eruption occurred.

16. TAXILA, PAKISTAN

Taxila is a complex that spans 6th century BCE Achaemenian ruins. The city was conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE, and was a major center of Buddhism. In the 5th century CE, the Ephthalites invaded and destroyed much of the city while simultaneously lessening the presence and influence of Buddhism in the region. When the Ephthalites were defeated, the city wasn't restored, and a century later a chronicler noted that the city was still desolate, soon to be abandoned.

17. PYRAMIDEN, NORWAY

A sign for the abandoned town of Pyramiden, Norway.
DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Svalbard is an archipelago in the far north Arctic Ocean. Before 1920, it existed as an international Wild West, with no nation having ownership. This changed with the Svalbard Treaty that gave the archipelago to Norway on the condition that Norway not unduly interfere with certain rights of other signatories, such as mining activities, based on nationality.

The Norwegians had already attempted to mine coal in the area, but abandoned it, and the Soviet Union stepped in to work the land. According to Bloomberg, as an effectively Western city, Pyramiden had a very high standard of living, recruited the best minds, and served as a display for Communism to the rest of the world. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Pyramiden stopped being economically viable, and after a 1996 plane crash that killed 141 people and destroyed morale in the community, it was abandoned in 1998.

18. MERV, TURKMENISTAN

Camels grazing near ruins in Merv, Turkmenistan.
David Stanley, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It's possible that Merv in modern Turkmenistan was the largest city in the world for a few years in the 12th century, with a population around 200,000 people. Merv's wealth came from a strategic position for trade routes and dams that provided the city with water.

In the 13th century, one of Genghis Khan's sons, Tolui, attacked, destroying the city. Although modern historians think it's exaggerated, the chronicler Ibn al-Athir claimed that 700,000 people were killed. The city never recovered, although other towns would be built in the surrounding area.

19. CAHOKIA, ILLINOIS

Cahokia mounds.
Steve Moses, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Cahokia, located just outside present day St. Louis, was the largest pre-Columbian settlement in the Americas north of modern Mexico. As the main bed of the Mississippian culture, the city grew quickly—some estimates indicate that between 1050 and 1100 CE the city grew from around 2000 people to 15,000 people, which at the time was the same population as London [PDF]. For reasons that are still debated, the population soon declined and Cahokia was abandoned circa 1350. It may not have been all bad though—some historians suspect that the population decline is what helped spread the Mississippian culture across much of North America.

20. NAN MADOL, FEDERATED STATES OF MICRONESIA

Ruins at Nan Madol.
NOAA Photo Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Nan Madol, off the shore of Pohnpei, is best known as the only existing ancient city built on top of a coral reef. Comprising 92 artificial islands, the city served as the center of the Saudeleur dynasty who ruled the island. According to the National Park Service, Nan Madol was built around 1200 CE. Four hundred years later, a warrior-hero named Isokelekel helped overthrow the Saudeleur, leading to the abandonment of the site.

21. MOLOGA, RUSSIA

Church ruins in the Rybinsk Reservoir.
Ylliab Photo, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When the Soviets decided to create the Rybinsk Reservoir on the Volga River in the 1930s, there was only one problem: Mologa and over 600 smaller villages, with a population of around 130,000 people. The residents were forced out, although there is evidence that around 300 people refused to leave and were drowned when the city was flooded in 1940. In 2014, the weather caused the reservoir to drop dramatically, re-exposing parts of the city to the world.

22. NEVERSINK, NEW YORK

The Neversink Reservoir circa 2012.
rabbit57i, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Another set of flooded towns exist in New York, condemned in the 1940s to give New York City more drinking water. Among these towns are Bittersweet and the either ironically or aptly named Neversink, which was relocated.

These cities are not alone. Communities being destroyed by reservoirs are so common there's a genre of fiction called “reservoir noir” that deals with intentionally flooded towns.

23. SAN JUAN PARANGARICUTIRO, MEXICO

Abandoned church in San Juan Parangaricutiro, Mexico.
Matthew Fuentes, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

San Juan Parangaricutiro used to be the principal town in its region of Mexico, a thriving city of 4000 people centered by an 18th century church. But on February 20, 1943, around two kilometers away, a volcano started forming on a farmer's land. After a day it was 150 feet high, and by the end of that year it was over a thousand feet.

Ash began covering nearby villages, and everyone was evacuated. There were only three recorded fatalities, all due to lightning from the eruption. Eventually, the lava reached San Juan Parangaricutiro and the church was partially buried. Today, it's a tourist site.

24. HALLSANDS, UK

The remnants of Hallsands, UK.
steve p2008, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

On the night of January 26, 1917, the fishing village of Hallsands in Devon fell into the sea. Amazingly, no one died, but the majority of the town's 128 people were left homeless (only one house survived the storm). And the cause was entirely human.

Twenty years earlier, the British government had decided to expand a nearby naval dockyard, and in 1897 began dredging the area for sand and gravel—the same material that was protecting Hallsands from the rough waters. In 1900, part of the sea wall was destroyed by a storm, and dredging was soon stopped. But in 1917, a combination of gales and high tides destroyed the city. While the government strenuously denied responsibility, recent research has uncovered a report that showed the dredging conclusively caused the collapse.

25. LUKANGOL, SOUTH SUDAN

A burned house and bicycle in South Sudan.
Arsenie Coseac, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Lukangol was a city of 20,000 in South Sudan that was completely destroyed in late 2011 due to ethnic clashes. According to an MSF spokesperson in the area, the town had been reduced to ashes, thought most of the population was able to escape before the attack.

26. ARAVICHY, BELARUS

Old war memorial in an abandoned town in Belarus.
Ilya Kuzniatsou, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Much of the discussion of abandoned cities following the Chernobyl disaster is focused on Pripyat in Ukraine, but across the border, 70 percent of the radioactive fallout fell on Belarus, causing an estimated 470 villages and towns to be evacuated. Today, these communities, such as Aravichy and Dronki, exist in the Polessye State Radioecological Reserve, which has turned into a large scale nature preserve.

27. PLYMOUTH, MONTSERRAT

Sign prohibiting entrance into Plymouth, Montserrat.
Chuck Stanley, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1995, the Soufrière Hills volcano began erupting, and in 1997 a pyroclastic flow destroyed the city of Plymouth, once home to 4000 people, and the surrounding area of Montserrat, a British territory in the Caribbean. Today, around 60 percent of the island is an exclusion zone that can only be visited with special permission, including Plymouth. What makes Montserrat odd is that Plymouth is still technically the capital of the island, although in reality the capital is Brades.

28. SURVIVAL TOWN, NEVADA

A building built to test a nuclear reaction in Survival Town, Nevada.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Only a nickname, Survival Town is an odd city because no one ever actually lived there. It was built expressly to test the damage resulting from the Apple-2 nuclear test in 1955. According to Archaeology, the town was fitted with utilities, industrial buildings, cars, fully stocked kitchens, and even a propane tank farm alongside dozens of mannequins. Today, a few buildings survive from the site, but according to Colleen Beck of the Desert Research Institute, something more fashionable may also have survived. She told Archaeology in 2014 "There’s a J.C. Penney page—it must be from this test—that shows mannequins before and after…You have this 'before' picture of the dressed mannequin, and afterwards sometimes an arm's gone, or whatever. But the J.C. Penney clothes survive fine."

29. AKKAD, IRAQ

Map of Akkadian Empire.
Patrick Gray, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The Akkadian Empire took its name from the capital city, Akkad (or Agade). And apart from that, very little is known of the city. Legend says that Sargon built the city (or possibly restored it) and created an empire in the 24th century BCE. The Akkadian Empire lasted around two centuries before collapsing over reasons that historians still debate. Today, the location of the capital city of the empire remains unknown, as do many of the details of its rise and fall.

30. PAITITI, PERU

The Andes Mountains.
icelight, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Paititi is a legendary lost city somewhere in the Andes said to be rich with gold. Some scholars dispute its existence, saying that it was a metaphor instead of a city, or that it was created to distract invading Spaniards. Other scholars insist that it's real, and in 2008 officials in a Peruvian town announced that they discovered it along a heavily forested section of the mountains. Soon after, experts denounced their find as a natural formation, meaning the real Paititi remains lost.

11 Facts About Johann Sebastian Bach

Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. There's some disagreement about when he was actually born.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. He was at the center of a musical dynasty.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. He took a musical pilgrimage that puts every road trip to Woodstock to shame.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. He brawled with his students.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. He spent 30 days in jail for quitting his job.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. The Brandenburg Concertos were a failed job application.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. He wrote an amazing coffee jingle.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. If Bach challenged you to a keyboard duel, you were guaranteed to be embarrassed.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. Some of his music may have been composed to help with insomnia.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. A botched eye surgery blinded him.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. Nobody is 100 percent confident that Bach is buried in his grave.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

15 Positively Reinforcing Facts About B.F. Skinner

Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was one of the preeminent American psychologists of the 20th century. B.F. Skinner founded “radical behaviorism”—a twist on traditional behaviorism, a field of psychology that focused exclusively on observable human behavior. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions were cast aside as unobservable.

B.F. Skinner dubbed his own method of observing behavior “operant conditioning,” which posited that behavior is determined solely by its consequences—either reinforcements or punishments. He also coined the term "positive reinforcement." 

To Skinner’s critics, the idea that these “principles of reinforcement,” as he called them, lead to easy “behavior modification” suggested that we do not have free will and are little more than automatons acting in response to stimuli. But his fans considered him visionary. Controversial to the end, B.F. Skinner was well known for his unconventional methods, unusual inventions, and utopian—some say dystopian—ideas about human society.

1. B.F. Skinner invented the "operant conditioning" or "Skinner" box.

Skinner believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach “operant conditioning.” Skinner began by studying rats interacting with an environment inside a box, where they were rewarded with a pellet of food for responding to a stimulus like light or sound with desired behavior. This simple experiment design would over the years take on dark metaphorical meaning: Any environment that had mechanisms in place to manipulate or control behavior could be called a "Skinner box." Recently, some have argued that social media is a sort of digital Skinner box: Likes, clicks, and shares are the pellet-like rewards we get for responding to our environment with certain behavior. Yes, we are the rats.

2. B.F. Skinner believed that all behavior was affected by one of three "operants."

Skinner proposed there were only three “operants” that had affected human behavior. Neutral operants were responses from the environment that had a benign effect on a behavior. Reinforcers were responses that increased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. And punishers decreased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. While he was correct that behavior can be modified via this system, it’s only one of many methods for doing so, and it failed to take into account how emotions, thoughts, and—as we learned eventually—the brain itself account for changes in behavior.

3. He's responsible for the term "positive reinforcement."

B.F. Skinner eventually moved on to studying pigeons in his Skinner box. The pigeons would peck at a disc to gain access to food at various intervals, and for completing certain tasks. From this Skinner concluded that some form of reinforcement was crucial in learning new behaviors. To his mind, positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. He concluded that reinforced behavior tends to be repeated and strengthened.

4. Some critics felt "positive reinforcement" amounted to bribery.

Critics were dubious that Skinner's focus on behavior modification through positive reinforcement of desired behavior could actually change behavior for the long term, and that it was little more than temporary reward, like bribery, for a short-term behavioral change.

5. B.F. Skinner's idea of "negative reinforcement" isn't what you think.

Skinner believed negative reinforcement also helped to strengthen behavior; this doesn't mean exposing an animal or person to a negative stimulus, but rather removing an “unpleasant reinforcer.” The idea was that removing the negative stimulus would feel like a “reward” to the animal or person.

6. B.F. Skinner taught pigeons to play ping-pong.

As part of his research into positive reinforcement, he taught pigeons to play ping-pong as a first step in seeing how trainable they were. He ultimately wanted to teach them to guide bombs and missiles and even convinced the military to fund his research to that effect. He liked working with pigeons because they responded well to reinforcements and punishments, thus validating his theories. We know now that pigeons can be trained in a whole host of tasks, including distinguishing written words from nonsense and spotting cancer.

7. B.F. Skinner's first book, The Behavior of Organisms, broke new ground.

Published in 1938, Skinner’s debut book made the case that simple observation of cause and effect, reward and punishment, were as significant to understanding behavior as other “conceptual or neural processes.”

Skinner believed behavior was everything. Thoughts and feelings were just unreliable byproducts of behaviors, he argued—and therefore dismissed them. Many of his fellow psychologists disagreed. Regardless, Skinner’s theories contributed to a greater understanding of the relationship between stimuli and resulting behavior and may have even laid the groundwork for understanding the brain’s reward circuitry, which centers around the amygdala.

8. B.F. Skinner created the "baby tender."

Skinner was fond of inventions, and having children gave him a new outlet for his tendencies. He designed a special crib for his infant daughter called “the baby tender.” The clear box, with air holes, was heated so that the baby didn't need blankets. Unlike typical cribs, there were no slats in the sides, which he said prevented possible injury. Unsurprisingly, it did not catch on with the public.

9. B.F. Skinner also developed his own "teaching machine."


Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

You may have Skinner to thank for modern school workbooks and test-taking procedures. In 1954 Skinner visited his daughter’s classroom and found himself frustrated with the “inefficiencies” of the teaching procedures. His first "teaching machine"—a very basic program to improve teaching methods for spelling, math, and other school subjects—was little more than a fill-in-the-blank method on workbook or computer. It’s now considered a precursor to computer-assisted learning programs.

10. Skinner imaged an ideal society based on his theories of human behavior.

Skinner admired Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden, in which Thoreau writes about his retreat to the woods to get in greater contact with his inner nature. Skinner's "Ten Commandments" for a utopian world include: “(1) No way of life is inevitable. Examine your own closely. (2) If you do not like it, change it. (3) But do not try to change it through political action. Even if you succeed in gaining power, you will not likely be able to use it any more wisely than your predecessors. (4) Ask only to be left alone to solve your problems in your own way. (5) Simplify your needs. Learn how to be happy with fewer possessions.”

11. B.F. Skinner wrote a utopian novel, Walden Two.

Though inspired by Walden, Skinner also felt the book was too self-indulgent, so he wrote his own fictional follow-up with the 1948 novel Walden Two. The book proposed a type of utopian—some say dystopian—society that employed a system of behavior modification based on operant conditioning. This system of rewards and punishments would, Skinner proposed, make people into good citizens:

“We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That's the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement—there's no restraint and no revolt. By careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave—the motives, desires, the wishes.”

12. Some felt Skinner's ideas were reductionist ...

Critics, of which there were many, felt he reduced human behavior to a series of actions and reactions: that an individual human “mind” only existed in a social context, and that humans could be easily manipulated by external cues. He did not put much store in his critics. Even at age 83, just three years before he died, he told Daniel Goleman in a 1987 New York Times article, “I think cognitive psychology is a great hoax and a fraud, and that goes for brain science, too. They are nowhere near answering the important questions about behavior.”

13. ... and others were horrified by Walden Two.

Astronomer and colleague JK Jessup wrote, “Skinner's utopian vision could change the nature of Western civilization more disastrously than the nuclear physicists and biochemists combined.”

14. B.F. Skinner implied that humans had no free will or individual consciousness.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Skinner wrote several works applying his behavioral theories to society, including Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He drew fire for implying that humans had no free will or individual consciousness but could simply be controlled by reward and punishment. His critics shouldn't have been surprised: this was the very essence of his behaviorism. He, however, was unconcerned with criticism. His daughter Julie S. Vargas has written that “Skinner felt that by answering critics (a) you showed that their criticism affected you; and (b) you gave them attention, thus raising their reputation. So he left replies to others.”

15. He died convinced that the fate of humanity lay in applying his methods of behavioral science to society.

In 1990, he died of leukemia at age 86 after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. Proud of his work, he was nonetheless concerned about the fate of humanity and worried “about daily life in Western culture, international conflict and peace, and why people were not acting to save the world.”

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