One of the earliest reports of environmental design for humans is a famous device conceived and built by B. F. Skinner for the comfort of his second daughter, Deborah. Deborah was born in the early 1940s, when the Skinners lived in Minneapolis, a city known for its extreme temperatures. Skinner wished to create a comfortable environment for his infant daughter; one that was warm, free of drafts, noise, and other things that might disturb her. Remember that in the 1940s insulating and heating a home or apartment could be a catch-as-catch-can affair, often with very uneven heat dispersion from room to room and without the benefit of air filters. Apartments were small and often there was no separate nursery for the infant. Furthermore, disposable diapers were still a convenience of the future. So, Skinner, ever the tinkerer with wood and electrical components, created what he first called an “air crib,” but later was described as a ”baby tender.” Its primary purposes were to keep his daughter warm and protected from the ambient noises present in any home, provide filtered air, and make cleaning up faster and easier. In the original version, a sheet could be rolled out across the bottom such that it could be changed easily. Because the environment was temperature controlled, it was unnecessary for the baby to wear nightwear, also meaning fewer things to wash in an era when washing was still a major task for many families. Covering the Plexiglas door of the air crib with a curtain allowed the child to sleep in the dark undisturbed by light from outside sources.
Skinner described the air crib and its use in a 1945 article, “Baby in a Box,” published in the Ladies Home Journal, and reflected further on the air crib years later. The famous photograph shows Deborah Skinner’s mother, Eve, playing with her while Deborah sat in that crib.
In retrospect, the original article’s title may have been unfortunate because it conjured up for many readers a vision of a larger version of his by then well-known “Skinner boxes” used in laboratory experiments with animals. The air crib as a result sometimes has been inappropriately portrayed as a place where his daughter was “raised” by her diabolical father, with an implication that she never was let out, and was used as a subject for his experiments much as he did his rats and pigeons. All patent nonsense of course. In fact, the air crib merely substituted for a more conventional baby crib. It was essentially a baby crib with all the bells and whistles, including a mobile-like toy. Of the latter, Skinner observed:
“We have devised a number of toys which are occasionally suspended from the ceiling of the compartment . . . One toy is a ring suspended from a modified music box. A note can be played by pulling the ring downward, and a series of rapid jerks will produce Three Blind Mice.”
The air crib was not functionally different from a contemporary nursery room in a comfortable modern home, except that it was smaller and could be kept in the living room (where friends of mine kept theirs during their child’s infancy – admittedly and literally it was indeed the centerpiece of their very small apartment’s living room). Deborah was put in the air crib to rest and to play when she wanted to, but otherwise was raised in the typical way of infants of that era.
The first air cribs were home-made of plywood and whatever parts could be assembled to provide the needed functions. Many of those early home-made air cribs still are used today. For the DIY readers looking for a project, a set of instructions for making an air crib can be found at GearAbility.