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Humans Are Special. Aliens are too, but it's more difficult to pass off an alien culture or that of an Alternate Universe Earth as fundamentally different from humanity by introducing a unique set of Technology Levels and social traits than to just have them lack something humans have. Wouldn't it feel alien to be asked what a table does or what the strange noise patterns that emerge from your iPod are?

Some aliens' hat is not knowing what a hat is. Despite being Rubber Forehead Aliens, Human Aliens from a very Earth-like planet on the same Technology Level with abundant Inexplicable Cultural Ties, or even Alternate Universe versions of actual humans, they are different from humans as we know them today in that they have failed to develop one very specific cultural practice.

This trope can be used to pull Aesops in demonstrating how humanity wouldn't be human without love, music, sports etc. or, on the other hand, how humanity could do well without war, money, soap operas or what have you. In keeping with that, there are two ways of playing this trope: either the aliens are stumped by an Earth invention or the humans are surprised to find out that the the aliens don't have it. Sometimes the author might just be complaining about stuff he doesn't like or finds frivolous by showing Humans Through Alien Eyes. Other times, it's just a throw-away gag.

You can get the same vibe from this trope as from In Spite of a Nail, but it deals with parallel planets rather than parallel universes. Contrast Schizo-Tech and Insufficiently Advanced Alien.

Some members of the audience find it breaks their Willing Suspension of Disbelief, while others feel that discovering a fundamental if specific difference in an otherwise less than exotic alien culture makes it more believable. The trope is justified by Real Life, though: as one example, until the 19th century, the Chinese never really used glass. This is because they came up with porcelain first and were very satisfied with its use as tea cups etc. (the west owes glassmaking to the Romans' love of wine). This also meant they were entirely left out of the Tech Tree that led to things like lenses (and therefore telescopes and microscopes and spectacles) or glassware suitable for chemical experimentation (glass is, As You Know, chemically neutral).

Might be the reason some Aliens Steal Cable and Alien Arts Are Appreciated. May also be the reason that there is No Such Thing as Alien Pop Culture.

Examples of Aliens Never Invented the Wheel include:

Anime And Manga

  • The humans in the Code Geass universe, despite their immense technical accomplishments, do not have nukes of any kind. Or at least, not until one of Einstein's grandchildren finally makes one.
    • Additionally, chemically propelled firearms were skipped and they went straight to Magnetic Weapons.
  • The Golden Tribe of Heroic Age was apparently so enlightened, they did not need to come up with the concept of numbers, or at least that's the theory Mobeedo comes up with.

Comic Books


  • The Thermians from Galaxy Quest don't know the concept of fiction, period. As a result, they mistake TV series like Galaxy Quest and Gilligan's Island for real events. Is related to the fact that they also didn't know what lying is, until they did meet the Big Bad.
  • It's been pointed out by Scary Movie III that the aliens from M. Night Shyamalan's Signs have mastered interstellar travel but have trouble with wooden doors.
    • They also seem to have never come up with the idea of hazmat suits. (They appear to have landed on a planet where pretty much everything is made of flesh-dissolving acid and decided to wander around completely naked.)
  • Prince of Space features aliens invading because of this trope. The invaders from Krankor have superior spacefaring technology, but their fuel technology is inferior to Earth's; they need the new formula for rocket fuel to start a true invasion of the stars (they have only one working ship, as opposed to the fleet they could fuel with the new formula).
  • The aliens in Independence Day have superior technology in many respects, but their actual computer technology lacks any sort of safety protocols to prevent intrusion. A lone man with a laptop is able to hack into the network of the mothership, and by proxy, the entire fleet, shutting down their shields.
  • Can seem literally true in Star Wars - with most of the Empire's ground weapons being equipped with complex walking systems so they have high centres of gravity and are vulnerable to tripping. However, there are wheels in the Star Wars universe.
  • A literal version of this trope is Spielberg's remake of War of the Worlds, where the aliens are shown in the basement of a house, quizzically playing with the wheel of a bike, in an homage to the original novel (see the Literature section below).


  • In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent can never seem to find a cup of tea. At one point, a computer is so stumped by the concept of tea that it effectively shuts down.
    • And then there's the alien race mentioned which invented the deodorant spray before the wheel, so at least for some time, they'd fit this trope. In their case, it's amusingly justified, since they're a species with fifty freaking arms.
  • In War of the Worlds it is hinted that the tripod-using Aliens skipped the invention of the wheel. There's an odd variation on the trope regarding disease - it's described that their own hygienic procedures were so successful that they've effectively forgotten what pathogens are, so have no defence against them.
  • The Discworld books invert this with a few throwaway mentions of slood - something which is supposedly easier to discover than fire, and only slightly more difficult to discover than water.
  • Discussed in The Tripods prequel novel When the Tripods Came. The Tripods are capable of interplanetary travel but still use plain old white light to scan areas rather than infrared or radar. One character points out that technological progression is not the same between cultures and points to the Mayans, who had an advanced road system but no wheels.
  • Clifford D Simak's story The Big Front Yard has aliens who never invented paint.
  • A literal example occurs in Poul Anderson's story "The Three-Cornered Wheel", where an alien civilization lacks wheels because their religion considers the circle too sacred to put to vulgar mundane use.
  • The whole plot of Harry Turtledove's short story The Road Not Taken and it's sequel Herbig-Haro. Antigravity and FTL travel turn out to be so ridiculously easy to discover that it can be done at the hunter-gatherer level, but the science involved is so different that it doesn't work with any other form of science or technology, and once you have antigravity and FTL, you don't need many other forms of science or tech, so they are never developed. You end up with civilizations that essentially stall at whatever technology level they were at when antigravity is discovered. Humans find out about this when they are invaded by aliens, the current dominant local intersteller power, who march out of their anti-gravity propelled starships and attempt to conquer the planet with muskets and linear battle tactics. Given that they attempt to invade late 20th/early 21st century Earth, it's a short invasion, and humans promptly spread out to the stars with their superior technology. In the sequel, humans run into a species that had managed to carve out a small interstellar civilization without discovering antigravity and FTL, so now they are the ones caught in the antigravity trap.
  • The wizards from Harry Potter, despite having at least one train and at least one bus, do not use electricity or anything else discovered/invented in the last couple centuries or so, even when it would be much easier than what they do (ball-point pen, anyone?). This is Handwaved by magic interfering with technology/electronics, but there are so many mechanically simple inventions that they could be using... and if an auto can be magicked enough that the electric starter isn't an issue, then clearly it's not much of an impediment.
    • Played overly straight where wizards, even though there is a substantial population who were "Muggle-born" (born and raised in the "real" world), don't even comprehend everyday items.
      • Even Muggle-born are only raised in the Muggle world until age 10, after that spending only relatively brief periods outside the Wizarding World for the rest of their education. How much does a 10 year old really understand about technological devices? The magical devices that imitate mundane devices (alarm clocks, and so on) are rather like the kinds of things a child might imagine technological items SHOULD be like.
    • Considering how many wizards and witches marry Muggles, it's remarkable that more of them aren't exposed to technologies in getting to know their spouses.
  • The Race from Harry Turtledove's Worldwar can fly between solar system, possess nuclear weapons, and have incredibly powerful computers, yet they have no concept of chemical weaponry, or any sort of battle-field appropriate gas masks - their closest invention, filtration suits, are for cleaning up nuclear waste.
  • In Everworld, it's noted that the Coo-Hatch have invented a kind of steel that can cut through just about anything, but have never discovered gunpowder. Until the protagonists accidentally help them do that.
  • In Animorphs, alien character Ax is actually surprised that humans invented books before computers, as he considers the former to be the greater achievement.
    • The Yeerks have also apparently never used projectile weapons, possibly because the stole most of their technology from species that were already far more advanced. Visser One has to remind the others that they can, in fact, be quite effective.
      • The Hork-Bajir Chronicles show that this is indeed the case. The first Yeerks to leave their planet attack the Andalites with stone age weapons, plus one stolen Andalite shredder. They escaped with assorted Andalite technology and developed their own weapons and spacecraft from there.
  • The Tran from Alan Dean Foster's Icerigger trilogy justifiably never invented the wheel, because they're natives of an ice-covered world where it's easier to move things on skate-blades and skis.
  • In Dragons Egg, the technological turning point in Cheela civilization was the invention of the sleigh, as opposed to the wheel. Justified in that the Cheela homeworld has such extreme gravity—it's a freaking neutron star after all—that no axle could be lifted off the ground and remain intact.

Live Action TV

  • In one episode of Star Trek: Voyager, the crew meets an alien race which is quite advanced, but was completely oblivious to the concept of music before hearing the Doctor sing. Even after they did become fond of it, they seem to enjoy the music primarily because of its mathematical rather than its artistic aspects.
  • The NBC Sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun pretty much ran on this concept. This is a particularly good example.
  • Played for Laughs in Doctor Who, where the Doctor once pointed out the fact that humans are the only species in the universe that has invented edible ball bearings.
  • In the pilot episode of his series, ALF examines the Tanner's toilet and exclaims "Interesting concept."
  • In Stargate SG-1, the Asgard, who are ridiculously far ahead of humans, have to enlist the Earthlings' help to fight the Replicators, against whom Asgard beam weaponry was useless, but guns worked wonders. Thor mentions that the thought of using chemical propellants to fire a slug of blunt lead simply never occurred to them. Presumably, they hadn't used propellant weapons in several million years and didn't think of using them.
  • Somewhat amusingly inverted in Babylon 5. According to G'kar it is one of the great mysteries of the universe that every known race has created a foodstuff identical to what Earth would be called Swedish Meatballs.

Video Games

  • Some Civilization games allow players to progress up the tech tree while skipping at least one basic tech. It can be rather enjoyable to achieve flight without understanding electricity, even if the units look no different...
    • Done literally in the sci-fi scenario of Civilization II: The Test of Time. One of the earliest alien technologies is "circular supports", reading the flavour text reveals that they copied this technology off the humans, who call them "weelz". The text goes on to express bafflement that they invented interstellar travel before coming up with this idea.
  • The humans of the Fallout series have never invented the transistor, so their advanced technology looks like it came out of a 1950's computer lab, despite having giant robots, nuclear-powered cars, energy weapons, and AI.
  • The Drengin don't have such a thing as fiction - rather, they can sense pain and other negative emotions, which give them pleasure. Ergo, their only form of entertainment is causing pain/fear/etc. in others.
    • On a more literal note, this is why the Terrans pioneered Hyper Drive, which allows fast interstellar travel without the massive limitations imposed by the stargates used by other races.
  • The Covenant use stolen AI to pilot their ships, as Cortana discovers when she cannibalizes one.
    • The Covenant in general don't seem to truly understand the advanced technology they wield.
    • They also cripple said AI with the same religious limitations as their flesh-and-blood followers. When Cortana starts messing around with the Covenant ship's settings, vastly improving its FTL drive and weapons, the Covvie AI "jumps out" and calls it heresy.

Web Original

  • Apparently, The Mercury Men have sophisticated technology; they can transport between worlds and manipulate gravity. But going from planet to planet via chemical-propelled rockets is something new and threatening to them.

Western Animation

  • A Treehouse of Horror episode had Kang and Kodos coming to Earth to share their alien technology, which included the most advanced video game they'd ever created: Pong.
  • On The Superhero Squad Show, Skrulls never figured out how to make string cheese.

Real Life

  • In addition to the Chinese example above, the Incans, despite being a considerably large and powerful empire, really never did invent the wheel. This makes more sense when you realize that they lived in rocky, mountainous areas, where wheels would be, in a word, useless. They used pack alpacas instead.
    • More precisely, they never adopted the wheel for practical use. Some wheeled children's toys have been found.
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