14 Surprising Facts About Aaron Burr

It’s fair to say that no Founding Father has attracted more scorn than Aaron Burr, the tragic antagonist of a certain Broadway smash hit. Born on this date in 1756, Burr is mainly remembered for two things: killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel and later getting himself tried for treason under President Jefferson. Less attention is paid to Burr’s other major accomplishments. Did you know, for example, that he basically invented modern campaign organizing? Or that he helped Tennessee join the union? Or that he had a remarkably progressive outlook on women’s rights for a man of his time? If you love the Hamilton musical, these 14 facts should give you a whole new outlook on the show’s most compelling character.

1. HE GRADUATED FROM PRINCETON AT AGE 16.

Burr was left an orphan at the age of 2. The toddler and his sister Sally (then nearly 4) were taken in by their maternal uncle, Timothy Edwards. For two years, the youngsters lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts before they relocated with Edwards to Elizabethtown, New Jersey. An intelligent, precocious boy, Burr submitted an application to Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) when he was just 11 years old. An examiner barred his admission, but that didn’t stop Burr from reapplying two years later. This time, Burr—now 13—was accepted into the university, which his late father had presided over. Four years younger than most of his classmates, he earned the affectionate nickname “Little Burr,” a reference to both the teen’s age and his short stature. He graduated with distinction in 1772.

2. DURING THE REVOLUTION, HE SERVED UNDER BENEDICT ARNOLD FOR A TIME.

Both of these guys would one day know how it felt to be the most notorious person in America. In 1775, Colonel Benedict Arnold led a contingent of patriot soldiers from Massachusetts to Quebec City by way of Maine. Altogether, some 1100 men made the journey; Burr was one of them. En route, the impressed colonel remarked that this future vice president was “a young gentleman of much life and activity [who] has acted with great spirit and resolution on our fatiguing march.” Fatiguing march, indeed: Arnold had severely underestimated the severity of the trek, and around 500 of his men had run off, died, or been captured by the time they reached their destination.

Near the end of this northward trudge, Burr was sent to deliver a message to General Richard Montgomery who, having taken Montreal, was also on his way to Quebec City with his own force of 300 men. Montgomery took an instant liking to Burr and recruited him as his personal aide-de-camp—but their partnership would soon be cut short.

On December 31, in the midst of a snowy winter’s battle, the general was killed by a cannon blast on the outskirts of the city. Some eyewitnesses later reported that Burr tried in vain to retrieve his commander’s body from the battlefield, but historians have their doubts about this story.

3. BURR WILLINGLY LEFT GEORGE WASHINGTON’S MILITARY STAFF.

Bust of Aaron Burr
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1776, Burr received an invitation to join Washington’s staff, and that June—after he returned from fighting in Quebec—he met the general in person to accept the position. But he wouldn’t retain it for long; not content to serve as “a practical clerk,” Burr began yearning for a job that would expose him to more combat action. Within a month, he requested and received a transfer to the staff of Major General Israel Putnam. From there, the relationship between Burr and Washington cooled. In 1798, the Virginian threw some shade on his one-time staffer, saying, “By all that I have known and heard, [Burr] is a brave and able officer, but the question is whether he has not equal talents at intrigue?” The tension was two-sided: According to John Adams, Burr once privately remarked that “he despised Washington as a man of no talents and one who could not spell a sentence of common English.”

4. HE ADMIRED MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Burr had feminist leanings. On July 2, 1782, he married his first wife, Theodosia Prevost Bartow. The two had much in common, including a deep admiration for women’s rights essayist Mary Wollstonecraft. (In fact, they even hung her portrait on their mantle.)

The mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, Wollstonecraft’s best-known writing is, by far, her 1792 manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Considered a watershed document in the history of feminism, it passionately argued that members of both sexes deserve the same fundamental rights, and denounced the educational systems of its era for failing to provide women with the opportunities afforded to men. The Burrs loved it: In 1793, Aaron described Wollstonecraft’s essay as “a work of genius.” To his dismay, however, his peers seemed to overwhelmingly disregard the text. “Is it owing to ignorance or prejudice that I have not yet met a single person who had discovered or would allow the merit of this work?” Burr once asked.

In keeping with Wollstonecraft’s philosophy, the Burrs saw to it that their daughter, also named Theodosia, received a top-notch education—the kind normally reserved for boys.

5. BURR FOUNDED WHAT LATER BECAME J.P. MORGAN CHASE & CO.

Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and Philip Schuyler strolling on Wall Street, New York 1790
Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after the war wrapped up, Burr established himself as one of New York City’s hottest lawyers—and its most prominent Democratic-Republican. For many years, his party found itself at a major disadvantage in the Big Apple. In the early 1790s, the city’s banks were all run by rich Federalists, and none of these establishments would lend money to Democratic-Republicans. So in 1798, Burr hatched a plot to get around this.

Taking advantage of a recent yellow fever epidemic, Burr asked the Federalist-controlled state legislature to give him a charter for what he called The Manhattan Company, a private organization that would provide New Yorkers with fresh, clean water. One of the most passionate supporters of Burr’s plan was none other than Mr. Federalist himself, Alexander Hamilton—though he would soon regret coming to his rival’s aid. In 1799, the legislature gave Burr that charter, which included a clause that allowed the Manhattan Company to employ “surplus capital” in any “monied transactions or operations not inconsistent with the constitution and laws of this state or of the United States.” Using this major loophole, Burr turned the Manhattan Company into a Democratic-Republican bank. It barely delivered water at all (although to keep the charter, a bank employee would ceremoniously pump water until 1923). Hamilton—along with the entire New York legislature—had been duped into helping Burr break the Federalist monopoly on banking in the city.

The Manhattan Company has since evolved into JP Morgan Chase & Co., one of the largest banking institutions in the world. It now owns the pistols that were used in the Burr-Hamilton duel.

6. IN THE SENATE, HE HELPED TENNESSEE ACHIEVE STATEHOOD.

Backed by New York Governor George Clinton and his family, Burr became a senator for the state of New York in 1791. Five years later, Senator Burr played a key role in Tennessee’s admission to the Union. Early in 1796, when the future state was still considered a federal territory, Governor William Blount spearheaded a constitutional convention at its voters’ behest. A constitution was drafted in Knoxville and then presented to both chambers of the U.S. Congress.

Upon reviewing the document, the House, with its Democratic-Republican majority, voted to grant Tennessee its statehood. However, the Senate was dominated by Federalists, who stalled—and a partisan gridlock ensued. As a manager of the bipartisan Senate committee that had been created to deal with this problem, Burr rallied most of his colleagues to Tennessee’s cause. In the end, the committee came out in favor of the territory’s bid for admission into the Union. Shortly thereafter, the Senate voted to give Tennessee statehood status. It officially became America’s 16th state on June 1, 1796.

Burr’s actions earned him the gratitude of many a prominent Tennessean. “I pronounce positively that Mr. Burr ... may be ranked among [Tennessee’s] very warmest friends,” Governor Blount declared. And when Burr visited the Volunteer State in 1805, Andrew Jackson entertained him as his personal houseguest in Nashville. At one point, Old Hickory even suggested that Burr relocate to Tennessee—where both men were quite popular—and seek public office there.

7. HE ONCE KEPT ALEXANDER HAMILTON OUT OF A DUEL.

Alexander Hamilton
NYPL, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The man on the $10 bill nearly traded gunfire with America’s fifth president. Here’s what happened: In 1792, then-senator James Monroe and two of his fellow Democratic-Republicans had accused Hamilton of illegally giving government money to a man named James Reynolds, who was in prison for committing forgery. When they confronted him, Hamilton revealed that he was having an affair with Reynolds’s wife; Reynolds had demanded payment to keep quiet and to allow the affair to continue.

The investigation wrapped up shortly thereafter, but Hamilton wasn’t out of the woods yet: In 1797, muckraking journalist James Callender publicly exposed the affair. Convinced that Monroe must have leaked the story, Hamilton went to confront his longtime opponent. Angrily, the two politicians waged a shouting match. “Do you say I represented falsely? You are a scoundrel,” Monroe barked. “I will meet you like a gentleman,” Hamilton said. “I am ready,” Monroe replied, “get your pistols.”

Within a month, both founders were preparing themselves in earnest for a duel. But the showdown never came—and it was Burr who put an end it. Monroe picked Burr as his “second,” a designated go-between charged with negotiating the terms of this impending clash. For his part, Burr figured that both Hamilton and Monroe were being “childish,” and he did everything in his power to prevent them from squaring off. Eventually, he was able to calm both parties down: Thanks to Burr’s diplomacy, the duel went unfought.

8. HE LOVED CIGARS.

In Fallen Founder: the Life of Aaron Burr, historian Nancy Isenberg writes that John Greenwood, who served as Burr’s law clerk from 1814 to 1820, “knew Burr … as a constant cigar smoker, for instance—he had extra long cigars made especially for him.” Often, the law clerk would find his boss cloaked in a haze of tobacco smoke. During Burr’s travels in Europe, he’d sometimes burn through as many as six cigars a day. He also discovered that the choicer ones paired well with rancio wines, which he said “[recall] the spiciness of tobacco, and they are the ideal accompaniment for cigars, often complementing them better than brandies.”

9. HE’S ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT FIGURES IN THE HISTORY OF TAMMANY HALL.

To quote Gore Vidal, “Aaron Burr … professionalized politics in the United States.” Just look at Tammany Hall. Founded in 1788, this organization started out as the “Society of Saint Tammany,” a non-political New York City social club that appealed to immigrant and working families. But by the mid-19th century, it had been transformed into Gotham’s strongest political faction—and it was Burr who triggered the change.

During the election of 1800, Burr made it his mission to win New York’s 12 electoral votes for the Democratic-Republican party. To help him do so, he enlisted the Society of Saint Tammany. Though Burr never belonged to the club, he easily capitalized on the anti-Federalist sentiments of its immigrant members, who loathed the party of John Adams and his Alien & Sedition Acts. Under Burr’s leadership, Tammany volunteers campaigned door-to-door and raised money from local donors. All their hard work paid off in dividends when Thomas Jefferson and Burr carried New York en route to winning the White House.

10. AFTER BURR KILLED HAMILTON IN THAT DUEL, TWO DIFFERENT STATES INDICTED HIM FOR MURDER.

Like Washington, Jefferson eventually grew wary of Burr. Believing that the New Yorker had schemed to seize the presidency for himself in 1800, Jefferson resolved to drop his V.P. from the Democratic-Republican ticket in 1804. Realizing that he’d soon be out of the job, Burr made a bid to re-enter the arena of New York politics. In the spring of 1804, he ran for governor, but was roundly defeated by fellow Democratic-Republican Morgan Lewis.

It was during this campaign that Hamilton made the remarks that sealed his fate. While the race was going on, Hamilton vocally denounced Burr at a dinner party. Among those in attendance was Charles Cooper, a Democratic-Republican who sent off a letter to a friend describing Hamilton’s comments. Somehow, bits and pieces of the letter began appearing in local newspapers, prompting a stern denial from Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler. An angry Cooper wrote a letter to Schuyler saying that Schuyler should be happy he had been “unusually cautious” and that “I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.” This letter too wound up in the press, and in June the relevant paper was sent to Burr, who wasted no time in contacting Hamilton. “You must perceive, Sir,” he wrote, “the necessity of a prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or denial of the use of any expressions which could warrant the assertions of Dr. Cooper.” Thus began an exchange of letters that culminated in the infamous duel of July 11, 1804.

As anyone who’s listened to the Hamilton soundtrack knows, Burr won. But what the show leaves out is the incident’s legal aftermath. That August, a New York coroner’s jury indicted him for murder. The following October, New Jersey—where the duel had been fought—did likewise. In a letter to his daughter, Burr explained his predicament thusly: “There is a contention of a singular nature between the two States of New York and New Jersey. The subject in dispute is which shall have the honor of hanging the Vice President. You shall have due notice of time and place.”

But Burr didn't hang. At the urging of Burr’s Democratic-Republican friends in the U.S. Senate, New Jersey dismissed its indictment against him in 1807; New York also dropped the murder charges.

11. BURR WAS FAMOUSLY TRIED FOR (AND ACQUITTED OF) TREASON.

Correctly assessing that the New York City area was no longer a safe place for him, Vice President Burr ran away to Georgia in August 1804, where he briefly stayed at the plantation of Major Pierce Butler. But as the sitting V.P., he couldn’t stay away from Capitol Hill for long. By November 4, he was back in Washington to preside over the impeachment trial of Samuel Chase, a Federalist Supreme Court Justice. The trial wrapped up on March 1, 1805 and Chase was acquitted. One day later, Burr gave a stirring farewell address to the Senate and took his leave. Soon, he would be replaced as Jefferson’s vice president by George Clinton. And yet, the administration hadn’t seen the last of Aaron Burr. Not by a long shot.

The word filibuster had a different meaning in the early 19th century. Back then, it was defined as “one who engages in unauthorized and irregular warfare against foreign states.” With his prospects on the east coast looking bleak, Burr headed westward to establish one in 1805. He attracted around 60 men to his cause and began arousing plenty of suspicion. His modern defenders argue that the former vice president was convinced there’d soon be a war between the U.S. and Mexico, and that he may have been planning to bide his time in the American south until said war broke out, at which point he’d lead his men into Spanish-controlled territory. But there were those who believed Burr wanted nothing less than to conquer America’s western holdings and create his own nation there.

President Jefferson assumed the worst. In 1806, the commander-in-chief called for Burr’s arrest. He got his wish on February 19, 1807, when Burr was apprehended in present-day Alabama. Burr was subsequently charged with treason and taken to the United States Court for the Fifth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia. Presiding over the case was John Marshall, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who said that the prosecution failed to provide sufficient evidence with which to convict Burr—and he was acquitted. Once again, though, Burr sensed that public opinion had turned sharply against him. In 1808, the disgraced politician set sail for Europe and didn’t return to the States until 1812.

12. WHEN BURR’S SECOND WIFE LEFT HIM, SHE HIRED ALEXANDER HAMILTON JR. AS HER DIVORCE ATTORNEY.

Talk about courtroom drama! Burr’s first wife had passed away in 1794, a victim of stomach cancer. He didn’t remarry until 1833, when he exchanged “I dos” with a rich widow named Eliza Jumel. (In the interim, his beloved daughter, Theodosia, vanished forever at sea.) After two turbulent years, Jumel accused Burr of committing adultery and of trying to liquidate her fortune, and sued for divorce. Her attorney during the proceedings was Alexander Hamilton Jr. Yes, the son of the man Aaron Burr had shot in 1804 represented his estranged second wife in a highly-publicized divorce case that was derided by haughty Whig newspapers. Burr died on September 14, 1846—the day this divorce was made final.

13. MARTIN VAN BUREN WAS RUMORED TO BE BURR’S ILLEGITIMATE SON.

They shared a knack for growing sideburns, but no genes. “Old Kinderhook,” as Van Buren was sometimes known, first met Burr in 1803. The two became reacquainted after Jefferson’s former V.P. came back from his self-imposed European exile and resumed his New York law practice. Together, they ended up collaborating on a handful of legal cases. This gave rise to the absurd rumor—as recorded by John Quincy Adams in his diary—that Van Buren was Burr’s bastard child.

14. A WORK OF AARON BURR EROTICA WAS ANONYMOUSLY PUBLISHED IN 1861.

No really, this exists. Burr’s enemies—including Hamilton—were known to accuse him of rampant womanizing. Such rumors help explain what is quite possibly the strangest work in American literature: 1861’s The Amorous Intrigues and Adventures of Aaron Burr.

Presented as a novelized biography, the book (whose author is unknown) retells everything from Burr’s birth in 1756 to his death 80 years later. But it also includes lurid descriptions of fictitious sexual conquests in several different states, with virgins, young widows, and unhappy wives constantly throwing themselves at our protagonist. For those who might be looking for a less racy novel about Jefferson’s first vice president, there’s Gore Vidal’s 1973 bestseller, Burr.

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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