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Aliens Never Invented the Wheel

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"The Jatravartids are... unique in being the only race in history to have invented the aerosol deodorant before the wheel."

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. And finally, just to be clear, this trope doesn't automatically make the aliens weak.

The lack of human emotions, specially this thing called love, may be used to define the alien race as well. If the aliens devote their culture to knowledge, they will be a race of Straw Vulcans. If they choose warfare instead, they will be a Proud Warrior Race or even Always Chaotic Evil; and likely the villains.

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.

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 and why Automobiles Are Alien. Contrast with the political version: Aliens Never Invented Democracy. Compare Fantasy Counterpart Appliance.


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    Anime & 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 a character whose surname was Einstein made one with Applied Phlebotinum. This is due to the fact that Sakuradite-assisted electrical propulsion systems were much more efficient than internal combustion engines. Thus, the effectiveness of electric-based systems extends to chemically propelled firearms as well; being replaced instead with Magnetic Weapons.
  • Doraemon has an alien world which apparently didn't have glass, so a box of marbles is enough as an apology after being abused.
  • 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.
  • The Ideal Sponger Life: The fantasy world never invented glass, so they are fascinated by the glass objects Zenjirou brought.

    Audio Plays 

    Comic Books 
  • In one Disney Ducks Comic Universe story, some aliens appear who never invented money. This leads to hilarious problems when they commit Grand Theft Me on Donald and "he" meets Scrooge.
  • In Pre-Crisis days, for all their advanced technology, Kryptonians were very slow to develop space travel. The reason, presumably, is that Pre-Crisis Krypton had such monstrous gravity that lifting a vessel into orbit was practically impossible until Jor-El discovered anti-gravity. They then had a short-lived space program which was cut short when the criminal Jax-Ur's test of a new super-weapon accidentally destroyed one of the planet's moons, including the nascent colony on it (Jax-Ur was sentenced to the Phantom Zone). Space travel was banned as a result, leaving Jor-El with no sympathetic ears when he pleaded with the council to let him built an escape fleet for the doomed planet.
  • Albedo: Erma Felna EDF is really bizarre in this aspect, considering the story is fairly grounded science fiction: Despite the anthropomorphics having jet engine technology and also jet-propulsed planes and ships, there's no fighter jet technology and no military seafaring outside civilian grounds, even if some planets does have seas. In the case of the former, this is for a myriad of in and out-universe reasons, mostly to avoid jet fighters from stealing the spotlight from the characters.
  • Buck Godot: Zap Gun for Hire establishes that every single technology, artform, odd tradition, bizarre hangup, etc. of humanity was already known to the galactic community by at least one other species having invented it. Except... Popsicles. Nobody else had ever thought of freezing liquid on a stick and eating it that way. Our parties immediately became immensely popular.
  • In the Warren editions of Vampirella, the planet Drakulon had never invented space flight and hadn't been aware there was life on other planets. This made sense in the earlier Vampirella stories were humans are the Higher-Tech Species (Drakulon was nearly medieval and Vampirella didn't know what a gun was, until astronauts shot her boyfriend), but later Warren stories retconed Drakulon into being more advanced technologically than Earth.
  • One arc in Astonishing X-Men covers a mysterious alien warrior trying to prevent an anonymous mutant from fulfilling a prophecy to destroy his war-torn home planet. War and destruction is so central to his home culture that they don't have a word for hospital, and the concept of a place of healing is so against their culture that the one medieval level hospital on the planet is shrouded in secrecy lest the planet's elders murder its patients.

    Fan Fiction 
  • A minor variation of this occurs in Avengers: Infinite Wars, when the Avengers join the Clone Wars; Scott Lang has the idea that the Avengers can make some independent credits for themselves beyond just fighting in the war by introducing billiards to the galaxy, with the possibility of bringing in further games later.
  • In the Discworld and The Big Bang Theory crossover The Many Worlds Interpretation, by A.A. Pessimal, the Caltech gang are consternated to arrive in Ankh-Morpork and to discover the Discworld has not evolved two of the staples of life in the United States: guns and internal combustion engines. The most advanced projectile weapon is a repeating crossbow, and steam power has only just been devised. However, this doesn't mean the city is not a very violent and dangerous place...
  • In The Search for Victory, when Skye (after being given a translation software) hacks into the Ori's computer systems, she finds them suprisingly easy to hack. Daniel speculates that, becuase the Ori's followers came from planets with a Medieval level of tech, they don't even have a concept of computers, let alone things like firewalls and hackers.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Thermians from Galaxy Quest have no concept of fiction, and therefore mistake TV series like Galaxy Quest and Gilligan's Island as historical documents of real events. In fact, they originally had no concept of untruth at all, right up until Big Bad Sarris introduced them to the concepts of lying and deception, the hard way. When Sarris finally sees the "historical documents" for himself, he recognizes it as a TV show instantly and knows he's dealing with a bunch of washed-up actors and not real space heroes, and takes sadistic glee in making the actors confess to the Thermians that they're essentially just a bunch of liars.
  • 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. It's often theorized that the aliens are some sort of a Hive Mind who've never encountered any other species with computers, and thus were unfamiliar with the idea of malware. That theory ends up being proven false by the sequel, where humans encounter an alien AI (meaning the Harvesters did encounter pretty advanced computers).
  • A version with humans in Iron Sky. The Moon Nazis have Artificial Gravity, controlled nuclear fusion, and the ability to build gigantic battleships with weapons powerful enough to obliterate a chunk of the Moon with a single shot. But their computer technology is still stuck in the 1940's, and their most powerful room-sized machine can't run all the systems on the above-mentioned battleship. Then an American model/astronaut shows up with a smartphone.
  • 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 Transylvanians from The Rocky Horror Picture Show have mastered intergalactic travel but not colour television. More egregious in the remake where the screen picture is otherwise perfect despite being in black and white.
    • Partially justified by the fact that they come from a sunless planet and the unfilmed sequel Revenge of the Old Queen establishes that the aesthetics of their culture tend towards everything being black. While they can see colour, and they do have artificial lighting (though they often seem to rely on candles, presumably because their night vision is too good to need more than that) on their planet, they likely don't encounter bright and colourful things often enough for replicating them onscreen to be a priority.
  • A literal version of this trope is War of the Worlds (2005), in which 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. They're also touching and even licking everything. It would appear they also have no concept of germs, which, like with all other versions of the book, ends up being their downfall.

  • Clifford 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 backstory to Harry Turtledove's short story "Herbig-Haro", later expanded on in the prequel "The Road Not Taken", uses this trope as its basic premise. Antigravity and FTL technology are ridiculously simple to discover, but the technology cannot be applied to other forms of science so it doesn't lend itself to further innovation. This means that when a race discovers antigrav, they tend to freeze themselves at whatever technological level they were at at the time. At least one race managed to discover antigrav before learning to smelt iron, leading to spaceships made from bronze. In "The Road Not Taken", the most dominant interstellar power attacks Earth, but since their tech stalled out around the Age of Exploration, with little better than black-powder muskets in the way of weaponry, they get steamrolled by the early 21st century humans. The story ends with their surviving leaders horrified at the idea that they've handed the key to space travel to such an advanced race.
  • 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 Alien in a Small Town, the Jan are a silicon-based race from a planet with very little atmospheric oxygen. They're amazed at how early in our prehistory humans discovered fire.
  • In Animorphs:
    • The alien character Ax is actually surprised that humans invented books before computers, as he considers the former to be more convenient and easier to use. He is also surprised to hear chatrooms were invented after the telephone for the same reason.
    • Ax is also amazed at the variety of human food, since Andalites (who lack a sense of taste) never saw the need for more than just a field of grass.
    • The Yeerks stole and modified Ray Guns from the more advanced Andalites, and thus skipped over projectile weapons. When Visser Three scoffs at human guns, Visser One reminds him that a single bullet can still kill a Hork-Bajir quite effectively.
    • The Andalites also never came up with the idea of commercial breaks for TV. Ax calls them "These Messages" at one point, and Tobias takes a minute or so to realize what he's talking about, becoming quite disturbed when he does.
  • Confederation of Valor: Played for laughs. The H'san apparently think humans are cool because we're the only species in the galaxy to invent cheese.
  • Has an interesting twist in The Conquerors Trilogy by Timothy Zahn. The aliens have nearly indestructible ceramic hulls and instant FTL communication. The humans have radio communications and can track FTL ships. So, it's more like "each race has unique strengths and weaknesses."
  • Discworld:
    • The 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.note 
    • The precursor civilization who used golems for literally everything only ever used wheels as children's toys. They never even invented basic walls, because who needs walls when you have an invincible army of golems?
    • One of the early books had a Mayincatec civilization who had chariots, but the "wheels" were human porters: while they knew how to carve stone disks, they'd only tried to make them roll by laying them flat on the ground and pushing. A well-meaning explorer tried to correct their mistake and ended up as a sacrificial prisoner.
    • The fifty-one members of the isolated marsh tribe that Fasta Benj belongs to, from Small Gods, had never encountered fire or metal before his tiny fishing boat got swept along with the Djelibeybi invasion fleet. Presumably it was a very soggy marsh.
    • Magic is so ubiquitous on the Discworld in general that electricity is still no more than a curious phenomenon. The wizards still manage to accidentally invent a magical computer (Hex) and telecommunications are handled by an elaborate version of semaphore.
  • In Dragon's 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.
  • In the Eternal Champion story by Michael Moorcock, where the humans' technology level is roughly Middle Ages, the elf-like non-human Eldren have invented many 20th Century modern weapons of destruction, including futuristic ray guns but have never succeeded in making a flying machine. Erekose (who, in another life, has much experience with modern technology) is surprised at this gap in their knowledge.
  • In Everworld, it's noted that the Coo-Hatch have invented a kind of super-durable steel that can cut through just about anything, but have never discovered gunpowder. Until the protagonists accidentally help them do that. It's also worth noting that David points out their grasp of something as comparably simple as knot-tying and the use of a pulley leaves much to be desired.
  • Expedition and the subsequent TV adaptation Alien Planet features a biological version. The planet Darwin IV is home to many weird and wonderful species of animal and at least one race with human (albeit caveman) level intelligence. None of whom have ever evolved jawbones or eyes. The two primary senses used by most vertebrates are usually sonar and infrared heat vision. It's speculated that the planet's atmosphere was extremely foggy at the time such sensory mechanisms arose, making visible light an inferior mode of detection.
  • Zig-Zagged in Grand Central Arena. At one point in the first book when outlining the history of the post-singularity species the Blessed to Serve (and, by extension, the Liberated), Mark DuQuesne says that the Minds "went all Frankenstein" on them, meaning they Turned Against Their Masters. Orphan, the sole-remaining member of the Liberated, says that "Frankenstein" didn't translate, showing that his people don't have an equivalent to that story nor any that were inspired by it, prompting the humans to give him a synopsis. After a few more minutes, Dr. Simon Sandrisson, another human, notes that the future Blessed likely did have an equivalent to Frankenstein at one point in their history, but the Minds purged it after taking over.
  • In Halo: First Strike, Cortana discovers from analyzing Covenant computers that, having developed most of their advanced technology by copying Forerunner artifacts, the Covenant races appear to have never mastered what 26th century humanity considers higher mathematics. She's able to apply math and science she knows to extract significantly higher performance out of the gear on a captured Covenant cruiser, much to the horror of the cruiser's AI, which, like the rest of the Covenant, sees the mere idea of manipulating the "perfect" Forerunner technology to improve performance as a sacrelidge bordering on heresy.
  • 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 Hand Waved 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.
  • The Race from Harry Turtledove's Worldwar can fly between solar systems, 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. This is partly because the Race haven't fought a real war in literally tens of thousands of years, but also because their extreme social conservatism creates effective technological stasis; any sort of major innovation is exhaustively studied to make sure it doesn't create social harm (ie upset the status quo), a process that takes so long that broadcast television apparently took sixty years to be legalized after it was invented. In addition, the concept of large waterborne vessels eludes them, as Home is a largely desert world with no large bodies of water, so they never had any need to develop ships.
  • In The History of the Galaxy setting, the Insects, the Logrians, the Delphons, and the Harammins are millions of years old and have built things like a Dyson Sphere, an advanced portable computer the size of a jewel that can store the entire consciousness of a living being, a gigantic super-powerful computer composed of billions of the previous-mentioned jewels, a way to make stars go nova, advanced genetic engineering, and the ability to send an entire star system into hypersphere. There are two major technological advantages that humanity (a relative newcomer to the galactic stage) has over them: the hyperdrive and cybernetics. The first is a little odd, since all those races knew about the existence of hypersphere, but were forced to build a Portal Network using stationary gates that first needed to be hauled at sublight to the destination. It took a single human scientist a few years to come up with the hypersphere theory and the drive after observing the phenomenon once. The latter is at least partly justified for the Insects, who possess a huge supply of mindless drones, so the idea to build mechanical devices never came to them. Their only AI is a bluky photonic computer that was created to run their Dyson Sphere. Meanwhile, humans can mass-produce AI modules in factories. The aliens also have nothing that even compares to humanity's Mini-Mecha, Humongous Mecha, or Mecha-Mooks. One novel has the protagonist find an abandoned human military base, whose machinery is being studied by the Insects in an effort to learn how to make their own, but they simply don't have the centuries of scientific and technological basis for all that equipment in order to do it quickly.
  • In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, there's the alien race mentioned which invented the aerosol deodorant 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 arms, so dealing with armpit stink would take fist priority for their culture.
  • Nonhuman species in The Jenkinsverse never invented the gun: black powder weaponry is too heavy and recoils too hard for aliens to use effectively: They were never able to develop a version that could fire accurately which wouldn't also harm the weapon's operator. For this reason, only humans have invented ballistic weaponry, firearms and effective defenses against firearms.
  • Ringworld:
    • Natives sometimes find it tricky to draw the line between intelligent and non-intelligent hominids, as different species' earliest technological advancements don't always correspond. For example, some aquatic species use flaked stone tools but have never discovered fire.
    • The Pak, a hyperintelligent race noted for its ability to construct things like Ringworld, never invented perfume. This has catastrophic consequences for their species, as being able to apply the odor of one's offspring to non-relatives might have averted millions of years of genocidal warfare among bloodlines.
  • Little Fuzzy: The legal standard for establishing sentience is the ability to build a fire and to use language. Complications ensue when humans encounter the Fuzzies, who have fur, live in a temperate environment, and prefer their food raw (thus eliminating the need for fire). They also don't appear to speak until it is discovered later that they do have a complex language, but their vocalizations are beyond the range of human hearing. However, the Fuzzies do have other signs of intelligent culture—toolmaking, ritual burial of the dead, hunting/gathering behavior—so much of the plot hinges upon whether the Federation's legal standard for sentience should include the Fuzzies.
  • The Mote in God's Eye has an interesting variant. Though generally on the same tech level as the human civilization (possibly even a touch more advanced in many areas), the Moties never invented this setting's version of Deflector Shields. Since the only form of FTL travel in this setting leads along specific Hyperspace Lanes, and the other end of the only such lane in the Motie system is in the outer corona of a star, this has kept the Moties interdicted in their home system for millennia. When the characters learn of this disparity they aren't surprised, as the physics behind the shields is opaque and their discovery was entirely accidental.
    • Once the Moties learn what shield generators are from encountering one on a single human spaceship, they rapidly develop far better shields than the humans can make.
  • Orthogonal justifies this trope with electronics. The trilogy takes place in an alternate universe with its own set of physics. Because of the way physics work, basic electronics are not completely impossible to construct, but it is highly unlikely that the characters (or any members of their race) would ever discover the principles behind it without a lot of luck or help. Despite this, their other scientific accomplishments include traveling through time in a rocket-powered Generation Ship, fundamentally altering the mechanism behind their own Bizarre Alien Reproduction, and discovering a way to safely interact with Antimatter. Between the second and third books, though, they do invent "photonics", which serves pretty much the same function as electronics, except that it works by using photons instead of electrons.
  • Penn & Teller's Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends includes a short story about aliens who put Humanity on Trial for being redundant; they are able to find nothing that is uniquely human and are preparing to exterminate us to free up our planet for colonization by a race with more biological and/or cultural distinctiveness. The protagonist saves humanity by showing the alien ambassador a simple magic trick involving "invisible thread," an invention duplicated nowhere else in the universe. Whether the aliens are actually taken in or whether it is the use of sleight-of-hand to deceive for the purposes of entertainment that they consider unique enough to be worth preserving is left to the reader's imagination.
    • Their (preceding) cable TV special (named "Invisible thread") has the aliens explain. They knew it was a trick, but said no other species would pretend there was something like that.
  • In the world of Kelanna, the setting of The Reader (2016), written language was never invented. The idea of reading words is totally alien to all but a few people, and the only way history survives is through oral tradition.
  • Star Wars Legends: New Jedi Order inverts this, as everyone in the known galaxy has never seen a book before, but the Chiss use them, thinking them more durable in Csilla's climate than electronic records. According to George Lucas, the entire galaxy reached the electronic age so long ago that eReaders and datapads have been around for millenia, completely eliminating the need of paper (no paper was allowed to be visible on screen in the movies for any reason) for so long that the concept of the codex book was lost.
  • The Tripods:
    • Discussed in the 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.
    • Also, in the third book of the main series it is revealed that the aliens never developed balloons, airplanes, or any other variant of flying machine, jumping directly from the Tripods to space travel. Speculated in-book to be the result of a combination of their world's extremely strong gravity and a sort of cultural blind spot.
  • In David Brin's Uplift series most species were uplifted straight from the Stone Age (or, more commonly, being highly intelligent pre-sophont animals) to anti-gravity. So things like paper and less advanced forms of flight are largely unknown to them. They also got extremely advanced calculators so early that Terrans are pretty much the only ones with math beyond arithmetic.
  • Warhammer 40,000: In a display of Schizo Tech typical of the setting, one short story, "Warped Stars" by Ian Watson, has a planet which, for local religious reasons, equates the wheel with the blasphemy of scientific progress, and uses it solely for executing suspected witches and heretics. The world's main industry is raising groxnote , which are impractical to drive any distance, so they're slaughtered in small towns and the meat frozen and transported to the major cities by Anti-Gravity trucks.
  • In The War of the Worlds (1898), it is hinted that the tripod-using aliens skipped the invention of the wheel; none were found in captured machines, and most had ludicrously complicated lever systems where a few gears would have done the job just as well. 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 defense against them.
  • In Wings of Fire, the NightWings are the most advanced dragon tribe, who know about genetics, germ theory, and desalinization, and can even create armor capable of carrying lava, but they've apparently never invented glass.
  • The Witling Justifies this trope with numerous basic innovations, as having Psychic Powers meant such things never needed to be invented. Notably, very few buildings have doors, because the Azhiri just teleport everywhere, including in and out of buildings. They also lack basic plumbing, and actually don't seem to have invented the wheel—because of their reliance on water for transport, they travel long distances using "road boats" via artificial transit lakes. No one seems to carry weapons, either—who needs them, when you can just scramble your enemies' brains at a distance?

    Live-Action TV 
  • The NBC sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun pretty much ran on this concept. For example, in one episode, an alien is perplexed by a tissue box.
  • In the pilot episode of his series, ALF flushes the Tanners' toilet and exclaims "Interesting concept."
  • The inhabitants of Lorne's native dimension from Angel never invented music, and he's the only native who ever learned to sing. They do have dance, which looks rather dumb with no audible accompaniment.
  • Doctor Who: Played for Laughs in "Fear Her", where the Doctor once pointed out the fact that humans are the only species in the universe that has invented "edible ball bearings" (as he calls round metallic sprinkles).
  • In Farscape, Crichton misses various things from Earth which he is unable to acquire in space such as chocolate, milk and jeans. Also, you have to go to Earth if you want to get your favourite DRD some WD40.
  • 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 is useless, but guns work 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. There's also the fact that all Asgard are clones whose consciousnesses have been around for thousands of years. This tends to lead to some rigidness in views, although they're still damn good scientists. Why the railgunnote  wasn't invented isn't discussed on-screen.
  • Star Trek:
    • In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Virtuoso", 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.
    • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Loud As a Whisper", Data mentions a race called the Leyrons who developed a written language before the use of speech or gestures.
    • In the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds episode "Strange New Worlds", the Federation learns of the planet Kiley 279 apparently has warp capabilities and goes to initiate First Contact with them, assuming them to be ready for the next big step. However, upon investigation, they find out that they haven't even done space exploration. As it turns out, they made a massive leap frog in technology by accidentally spying the Battle Near Xahea at the end of Star Trek: Discovery season 2 and decided to use the technology to create a warp bomb. Spock compares it to a civilization creating the nuclear bomb before understanding particle physics.
  • Supergirl: In this show's universe (the Pre-Crisis one at least), neither the Kryptonians nor any of their trading partners apparently ever invented popcorn or an equivalent, so Kara was terrified of the popcorn maker when she first came to Earth.
  • Torchwood: Jack tries to cheer up Owen during a team camping trip.
    Jack: No other species in the universe goes camping. Celebrate your uniqueness.

  • Journey into Space: In Journey to the Moon / Operation Luna, the Time Travellers have no concept of music.

  • The biomechanical inhabitants of the Matoran Universe in BIONICLE react with bafflement when they discover a parchment left behind by their Precursors and wheels affixed to the feet of the ancient warrior Umbra. Despite knowing what wheels are and several creatures having caterpillar tracks for legs, their ground vehicles all had insect legs, and only one vehicle (the Destral Cycle) was ever shown to canonically use wheels for their intended purpose.

    Video Games 
  • Civilization:
    • Some 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 flavor 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.
  • This trope can be invoked by the player in Doodle God — for example, you can invent steam engines and airplanes before knowing how to create bread or clothing.
  • Doom Eternal: The world of Argent D'Nur is highly advanced with Laser Blade and plasma weaponry, interstellar travel, and mechas. However, they never developed gunpowder-based firearms, as when Doomguy arrived there, they were confused by his guns, calling them "of arcane origin". This is because the Argenta were a medieval civilization who were uplifted by a group of Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, and so went straight from the Iron Age to a spacefaring empire with no intermediate steps.
  • It's hard to know just how much the Elvhenan of Dragon Age invented, as their civilization was destroyed and most of their technology adopted by their conquerers. But a questline late in Dragon Age: Inquisition highlights the fact that the elves built grand cities in every distant corner of the globe, but no roads; instead, they had a network of magical doors to take them go everywhere they wanted to go.
  • Empire Earth: Scientific and cultural advances affect only the type of unit they're attached to: Building upgrades increase the building's range, HP or resource gathering rates, while units types are upgraded individually when a new epoch is researched. It's entirely possible (if stupid) to explore the stars with a culture that has yet to discover a standard-issue handgun more powerful than an arquebus, aircraft that don't use propellers, or sandals, and the ability to manufacture entirely automated battle robots despite never looking into this "scientific method" business. Averted in scenarios that don't start at the very first epoch, which start with all previous upgrades automatically researched.
  • In Endless Legend, the Vaulters, a faction of humanity on Auriga that remembers its origins in space, develops manned space travel before they develop firearms; they make do with Automatic Crossbows, salvaged Powered Armor and Humongous Mecha.
  • The monsters of Evolve, despite matching or outstripping humans in intelligence, never invented anything. While this may seem like a weakness, this is because their sheer physical power, arsenal of deadly abilities, low-level biological forcefield, and natural FTL capabilities made any technological innovation pointless. This point is backed up by how they picked a fight with humans, despite the massive technological gap, and still haven't needed anything to make up for the disadvantage. In fact, they're actually winning.
  • Galactic Civilizations:
    • 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. Or so they claim: Drengin that defect to or are conquered by more moral societies seem to get along just fine, so this may be propaganda used by the Drengin's government as a weak excuse for their cruelty.
    • 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. Unfortunately, humans in this 'verse didn't develop common sense. The first thing they do after inventing the hyperdrive is give it to all aliens. The reason humans are able to build the hyperdrive is because they are the only ones to discover controlled nuclear fusion. All the other races were stuck at fission (i.e. what we have now), which didn't provide enough power to miniaturize the gates. In fact, none of the aliens invented the gates. They all copied the technology from the Precursors.
  • In Halo, the Covenant have a long-standing religious ban against creating A.I.s, which makes much of their technology easily hackable by Human AIs. To top it off, the few Covenant AIs that do exist such as the one seen in the Halo CE terminals and the AI Cortana encountered in Halo: First Strike are implied to be copied directly from human AIs but heavily downgraded.
  • In the backstory of Mass Effect, it turns out that the Citadel has an equivalent of the Washington Naval Treaty that restricts the number of dreadnaughts that a given species can field at a time. Humanity's response to said restriction? Introduce the concept of carriers to the rest of the Milky Way, safe in the knowledge that they're not covered by the restriction. Eventually, other species (such as the turians) commission carriers of their own.
  • The people of Boggob from Meteos are in their stone age during the Meteos attacks, but after surviving the onslaught, they built a space ship out of the resulting ore just like every other playable alien race in the game.
  • Several nonhuman races in RuneScape do not use individual names, or do so only for the benefit of the humans and human-equivalent races they interact with. However, the Goebies simply hadn't thought of using names for individuals (they do have names for places and spirits) before humans introduced the concept to them, so they use names borrowed from the humans they meet.
  • Stellaris:
    • Most civilizations develop Hyperspace Lanes before advanced AI. Most Machine Empires developed advanced AI before Hyperspace Lanes. Upon First Contact, they will note the difference in development path.
    • The Habinte Unified Stars are an unusual pacifist Primitive (that's how they are classified in-game) civilization occupying the Dacha system, found on six pristine Gaia worlds. They never developed space travel like other star empires, but Militarists and Xenophobes would be unwise to invade and give them a reason to. Not mere Space Amish, the Habinte's mastery of many technologies rivals that of the Fallen Empires. If they are invaded, they use their superior mastery over Hyperspace Lanes to kick out the invaders and make their system inaccessible to conventional FTL. If the invaders then use unconventional FTL to invade them again, they instantly copy the invaders' tech, materialize a fleet on par with their enemies, and become a conventional star empire with a huge grudge against their invaders.
  • One Team Fortress 2 update explains that the rocket launcher and the second-story building were invented in the 18th century in the same year by the same man. Tragically, stairs would not be invented until the mid-1800s and only came into wide use in the 1920s, meaning that for some time, the only way to get above the first floor was Rocket Jumping.
  • In the Trails Series there was a history-defining technological breakthrough dubbed the "Orbal Revolution" brought up by Professor Epstein roughly 50 years prior to the events of the franchise. Epstein managed to develop technology capable to employ a mysterious energy known as "Orbal" to power up mass produced mechanical devices called "Orbments". These contraptions could be used for just about everything: lighting, heating, communications, weaponry and transportation to name a few. As such, mankind never developed anything that could not be powered by Orbments. This flaw was eventually exploited when an enemy created a weapon capable of disabling Orbments, stopping everything on their tracks. Interestingly, it was then revealed that an old inventor had in his possession a prototype diesel engine that he thought could put to use during this crisis, thus demonstrating that there was some kind of progression paralleling real world developments before Orbal Technology rendered it obsolete.
  • In Arknights, with the wide availability of Originium as a power source, it never occurred to the inhabitants of Terra to even research any other way to produce combustibles such as fossil fuels or even nitrocellulose (gunpowder). This is highlighted in the Rainbow Six Siege crossover events, where Rhodes Island engineers are confounded at how Earth guns can operate without Originium or its wielder having Arts compatibility.
  • In Final Fantasy XVI, the majority of the world uses Crystals as a means of creating fire and drinkable water. Due to this dependence on Crystals, there has been virtually no efforts to really research basic sciences such as irrigation, water purification, or even how to start fires.

    Web Animation 
  • RWBY:
    • The tech level of Remnant is extremely impressive in most respects, with holograms, massive flying airships, combat androids, etc. However, the setting has a complete lack of space technology. The reason for this is that Dust, which the setting uses for virtually all its power needs, ceases working once you get above the atmosphere for reasons unknown, and given that Dust is extremely efficient and cheap, they've never looked toward developing any other type of fuel. This also means that Remnant's global communications network is less advanced than the Internet in real life, since, without any orbiting satellites, it's dependent on four giant towers and lots of relay stations: if even one of the central towers fails for whatever reason, the entire network is taken offline.
    • Another thing that Remnant seems to be lacking in is certain advanced weapons like fighter jets. In this case, it's because Remnant weaponry is specialized around fighting the Grimm, which are naturally-occurring Animalistic Abominations, rather than fighting other humans. Airborne Grimm are normally rare, so VTOL transports with mounted guns are normally more than sufficient to deal with them. Salem takes advantage of this by creating a new type of Beringel with wings, and then attacking Atlas with a massive flying army headed by a winged whale the size of an island.
    • A more subtle issue is the general lack of globalized production. The Grimm make trade and communication between civilizations incredibly difficult, to the point where there are only four recognized kingdoms on the entire planet. It's telling that all the above examples of technology come from the kingdom of Atlas, which is isolated from the Grimm by virtue of their hostile environment; when we see airships from the kingdom of Mistral, they essentially amount to wooden boats with wings and propellers.

  • In Homestuck, the troll species has a bit of this.
    • While the troll species does have recreational drug use, it has apparently never occurred to them to try lighting their drugs on fire and inhaling them. When Cronus is questioned about his cigarette (which he got simply to add to his Greaser motif), he states that he would never actually ignite it, and simply sees it as a waste of a good cigarette. (In Hiveswap Friendsim, however, trolls are shown to have vapes, so it’s likely that cigarettes never existed on Beforus.)
    • Trolls, due to being bisexual by nature, don't have words for single-gender sexuality. It's thought of more as a fetish than an actual biological preference. Further, since their reproductive process doesn't result in families and involves an insectoid queen, Karkat has a difficult time understanding the concept of why "incest" would be a bad thing.
    • Averting it is Played for Laughs at a few points, such as when Terezi tries describing cotton candy as an exotic alien delicacy only for Dave to quip "We have cotton candy, dumbass."
  • In Poppy Opossum, the society on Flora is built almost completely around Magitek, so that essentially any device more complicated than a simple machine is made with at least some basic charms in it and they've never really thought to use a non-magical alternative. Thus, to quote one example, while they have flying platform lifts in public places, an escalator is considered cutting-edge, novel technology. (This is also why the magic-negating opossums face Fantastic Racism, as they are essentially walking techbanes.)

    Web Original 
  • Green Antarctica: the Tsalal discovered gunpowder centuries before the rest of the world, but never invented guns until they met Europeans, instead focusing on rockets. They also never developed ships suited for sailing the open ocean, though this was partially due to the Antarctic Current being really hard to get through, and partially because they didn't think there was anything out there, or at least nothing worth traveling to.

    Web Video 
  • 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 

    Real Life 
  • Pre-Columbian Civilizations only used wheels for children's toys. This makes more sense when you realize that at the time, the Americas didn't have any domesticated animals suitable for pulling wheeled carts. The only beast of burden native to the Americas is the llama of the Andes Mountains. The Inca Empire used llamas, but as pack animals (which carry goods on their backs) as opposed to draft animals (which pull goods in carts). Llamas can scale stairs and steep slopes well enough on their own, and wheels would just slow them down in such an environment. Additionally, wheels good enough for human pulled carts require a lot of effort to get to move, so improving the wheels to get good results takes a lot of effort. That being said, the original industrial use for wheels in the Old World—the potter's wheel—would have been useful to both the Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations (they were masters of pottery, and the wheel just makes the process faster and more efficient) and doesn't have these limitations,note  but they never developed it, either.
    • Likewise, metallurgy was much less developed in the Americas than in the Old World. While both the Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations made extensive use of precious metals—particularly gold and copper—for decoration, practical/industrial use of metal was quite limited. Native copper was used to make tools in both regions, and indeed elsewhere in the Americas (the peoples of the Great Lakes region are known to have mined copper for tools from the rich veins of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan), but because native copper is relatively rare these tools were never especially widespread. The Andean peoples had started to develop bronze metallurgy by the time the Spanish showed up, but the technology was in its infancy. Mesoamerica never had it at all except for a tiny region of western Mexico outside the orbit of the major civilizations in the region; the Aztecs and Mayans were using stone tools right up until Cortés arrived. Iron metallurgy never shows up in the Americas at all before contact with Europeans. This contrasts strongly with the Old World, where even the nomadic pastoralists tended to keep up with the latest in metal technology (the Mongol, Bedouin, and Bantu pastoralists all had blacksmiths).note 
    • Only the Mesoamerican civilizations developed writing, starting with the Toltecs and continuing on with the Maya and other successor civilizations (which may or may not include the Aztecs depending on who you ask and what your definition of "writing" is).note  The Inca did develop a system for keeping numeric records in the form of knotted strings, while others used colored beads as a mnemonic device, but most never had a written language until well after European colonization.
    • This is all despite having advanced mathematics as well as medicine.
  • A minor example is the medieval Japanese army never really using shields. They did use pavise-like shields for sieges, but they were considered to be "portable cover" rather than shields. In the Yamato periodnote , however, the Japanese DID use shields, as this was before samurai existed as such and thus the Japanese generally took more after their mainland Chinese neighbors in general manner of military equipment (which is also why not every Japanese sword is a katana). Later on, the Japanese would adopt the iconic large shoulder panels (sode) which served the effective role of a shield in catching arrows while the samurai's hands were free to use two-handed weapons like bows or yari.
    • It's also worth noting that European knights largely did away with carrying shields themselves in the same era as the golden age of the Samurai. When covered head-to-toe in a full suit of plate armour, a shield is somewhat redundant. You also need the second hand to wield a weapon heavy enough to breach the other guy's plate.

Alternative Title(s): Humans Never Invented The Wheel