Some science fiction works will have as part of their plot that a noticeable chunk of modern technology was descended from the use of alien science/knowledge in some way: perhaps it was the reverse engineering of Imported Alien Phlebotinum, or possibly the discovery of some Lost Technology left behind by Ancient Astronauts, or maybe we got it from a Captured Super-Entity. At any rate, it's not really ours.
This is usually meant to explain how we've managed so much progress in the past century or so. It can also explain why alien tech is sometimes eerily similar to human tech.
This trope is frequently used as the basis for a Historical In-Joke, the cheapest of which being that the reverse engineering happened at Area 51 and/or was a direct result of the supposed crash in Roswell.
If this is used as a throwaway gag rather than for technology central to the plot, Velcro is a popular choice, perhaps because it was first popularized by its use in Apollo-era space suits.
Expect varied amounts of success should the writers address the many issues brought up by the characters understanding even the underlying principles of whatever Sufficiently Advanced Alien tech the source was. Same goes if they try to explain how it came to be that an alien toaster could pave the way for the World Wide Web.
Also, a healthy dose of historical revisionism may be necessary to effectively use this trope considering modern technology can be traced back to human discovery pretty easily.
Works where there are Insufficiently Advanced Aliens instead of humans can also fit this trope.
Compare Technology Uplift, where the passing of technology from the advanced aliens is deliberate.
- A recent Alienware advert suggests that the company's range of high-power gaming PCs was created in this way.
- Which is unintentionally hilarious considering that anyone who knows anything about computers, or knows anyone who knows anything about computers, can make one just as powerful for maybe a third of the cost. Those aliens must really get around.
- Before cell phones became ubiquitous, PrimeCo ran a series of commercials featuring a little pink alien who lost his cell phone on Earth and tried to get it back because "Earth wasn't ready" for their technology.
- A tie-in ad campaign for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen has a Cybertronian Burger King who gave the secret to delicious hamburgers to the founders of Burger King back in 1953 in exchange for a place to live. Its implied that he continues to work as their recipe man right up to the present day.
- Nvidia created a Crop Circle in a California barley field as part of a viral marketing campaign for their Tegra K1 processor.
- The setting of Gintama is basically the Edo era with technology four centuries ahead of the curve, thanks to the Amanto introducing them to some amenities that wouldn't look out of place in a modern-day setting.
- Scarlet Traces posits that the tech left behind by the Martians in The War of the Worlds has been developed by humans with variable results.
- Superman Unchained: Humanity's technological progress has advanced steadily since 1938 through from use of an alien equation by the Machine. The culmination of this is Earthstone. The equation was made by Wraith's species, and they have done that with many other planets across the universe. When a civilization creates technlogy with the equation, Wraith's species can easily disable it and conquer a planet.
- The Transformers: Robots in Disguise: Garrison Blackrock states that human civilisation developed thanks to Nexus Prime's Enigma of Combination crash-landing on Earth.
- In Volume 2 of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the Martians do their damnedest to avert this: They retrieve the parts of fallen Fighting-Machines during the battle with the Nautilus.
- Inverted in Les Innommables, where the Roswell spacecraft is actually an experimental Russian aircraft with a pilot in suspended animation. The Americans are studying it, but the Chinese send agents to steal it.
- About a month into the war with The Race in Worldwar: War of Equals, the US and the European Union are very interested in the captured Hydrogen engines from Race vehicles. Europe reverse engineers the engines, and are expected to be mass produced by January.
- In Harry Tano, the presence of former Jedi Ahsoka Tano soon leads to Republic Tech being recreated on Earth, albeit with a large portion of it being Magitek until workarounds can be found.
- In the first live-action Transformers movie, the technological advances of the 20th century were made by reverse engineering the captive, frozen Megatron after he was discovered in 1897. This somehow includes automobiles, which were actually invented over 10 years earlier.
- The Asylum film Transmorphers has the human resistance's weaponry reverse-engineered from the alien robots'.
- We've evidently gotten quite a bit of knowledge out of that one crashed spaceship in Independence Day. An extended version of the film explicitly states that it was used to create Earth computers, which also handwaves the vulnerability of the mothership to a computer virus. Continues in the sequel, with humanity rebuilding and reverse-engineering even more alien tech in the 20-year gap between the films. This includes powerful hybrid jet fighters with shields, handheld energy weapons, and the ability to build bases on the Moon, Mars, and Rhea (one of Saturn's moons). This not only helps humanity deal with The Remnant on Earth but prepare for the return of the aliens.
- The titular organization in Men in Black gets its funding from holding various patents based on alien technology. This includes velcro and a little disc thingy that's "gonna replace the compact disc."
- Pseudo-example in The Stinger of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian movie, where a cell phone left in a portrait-sized photograph prompted a guy from just after WWII to attempt to reverse engineer it. According to the photo, his name was Joey Motorola. Motorola, Inc. was founded in 1928 by Paul V. Galvin and was already making hand-held radios in 1940.
- Paul, who is solely responsible for most of technological and pop culture advancement, including the idea for the movie ET.
- In The World's End, Gary and his friends discover that The Network have been influencing technological advances for decades to prepare us for life in a wider galactic community. Unfortunately some sacrifices had to be made For Our Own Good...
- The 1914 of War of the Worlds: Goliath is a Dieselpunk setting thanks to humans having retroengineered the technology of the downed Martian tripods.
- Hard Landing by Algis Budrys, in which a bunch of crash landed alien Joes have to get by on Earth, and one of them decides to sell alien tech to the US.
- Reversed in A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge: space faring humans guide the development of the alien Spiders through their equivalent of the Cold War in order to achieve a suitable technological base for the repair of their fleet.
- In the My Teacher Is an Alien series by Bruce Coville, an alien helps humanity develop television in hopes that it will slow humanity's development. He later regrets the interferencenote .
- Inverted and played straight in Go, Mutants!, where the human invention of nuclear weapons brings our planet to the attention of alien races leading one of them to invent the
internetPLEX for us.
- In The Man Who Fell to Earth (both book and film), alien protagonist Thomas Jerome Newton starts an Earthly corporate empire via his people's inventions (electronics, film stock, etc., all far ahead of human technology) with the intent of raising the capital he needs to fulfill his mission.
- In Animorphs, The Andalite Chronicles, Elfangor says he talked to a guy named Bill who worked at a computer company...obviously intended to be Bill Gates. He also mentions a guy named Steve, which could indicate one of Apple's Steves.
- In "The Warning", Visser Three's brother took a obscure human computer tech and turned him into the billionaire owner of Web Access America, the books' version of America OnLine.
- Also played with in #45 The Revelation, when it's revealed that the Yeerks helped humans discover Zero-space. Lampshaded by Ax in the same book.
- In # 14, the team visits Zone 91, where the government is rumored to be studying a crashed alien spaceship. A crazy woman at the beginning of the book strongly believes this is how humans got computers, but at the end we find out there is an alien construct being studied... an Andalite toilet. And an obsolete model at that. According to Ax, humans can't learn anything from it, so they decide not to say anything to the military devoting their lives to hopefully reaching the stars.
- The Strugatsky Brothers' Roadside Picnic transfers this trope into the future: In a setting Twenty Minutes In The Future, humanity makes progress by studying and finding uses for alien artefacts dropped on Earth by an unknown extraterrestrial civilization.
- In The Helmsman Saga, it is stated a few civilizations were given the push toward interstellar travel by the Empire's Escape pods. In book 8, the heroes land on Earth in the 60s. After being rescued, they leave the pod for us to study.
- In Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow, certain technologies like gravity manipulation and Faster-than-Light communication come from reverse engineered alien technology.
- And then changed in the Earth Afire prequel where humanity already has gravity lensing technology before the Formics even get to Earth, courtesy of Juke Ltd.
- Technically the communication isn't reverse engineered, because the Buggers didn't use technology to do it in the first place. It was rather that they were living proof that it was possible, which inspired humans to figure out how to replicate it using our own technology.
- In Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series, after a partly-successful Alien Invasion during World War II that leaves most of the Southern Hemisphere and the tropics under the control of the Race, the surviving human nations start reverse-engineering their technology. By The '60s, human technology has reached 21st century levels, and in less than a hundred years they've surpassed the Race (who are very conservative about applying new technologies that could disrupt the social order) and are building Faster Than Light starships.
- In the Myth Adventures series, it's visitors from other dimensions that are alleged to pose as "great inventors" so they can sell new technology to the yokels in less-advanced worlds.
- In the Isaac Asimov short story Does a Bee Care? an immortal alien stranded on Earth guides human technological development through most of history until it has reached the point where he can stow away aboard an early unmanned satellite and thus make his way home. He's no more concerned about where Mankind goes after he leaves than a bee cares about the flower it has just pollinated.
- The Hayford Peirce short story High Yield Bondage features an alien ship crashing on Earth in 1972 and starting businesses to both advance technology and build capital, which it can use to purchase parts to repair their starship.
- In Angry Lead Skies, two of the "silver elves" enhance Kip Prose's brain so he'll invent better and better technology, hoping that he'll eventually create the industrial base for them to repair their ship. They're taken home by some of the other Visitors, but Kip retains his inventiveness and uses it to introduce stuff like tricycles, pencils, and folding umbrellas to TunFaire in later books.
- In Jacek Dukaj's novel Córka łupieżcy, all the advanced technology of the future (including augmented reality, virtual avatars for dead/unborn people etc.) is secretly acquired from abandoned alien cities accessible through the City. One character remarks that the moment the City was discovered, it pretty much rendered all science moot, except for archeology: there's no point in researching anything if you can already find the answer in the records of some highly advanced civilization.
- Chappelle's Show had a take on the movie Deep Impact where the president reveals all the nation's secrets in the shadow of impending doom. One of these is the existence of aliens who brought us technical marvels such as both Playstation 1 and 2. (3 and 4 had yet to be released.)
- Dark Skies, and the conspiracy folklore it's based on, supposes that modern technology was invented by reverse-engineering material from the famous Roswell incident.
- Doctor Who:
- "Dalek" features a tech mogul who hoards alien artefacts for profit or just to admire them. According to him, he's not the first: Broadband is from Roswell.
- This is the explicit purpose of the original Torchwood, as revealed in "Army of Ghosts": to defend the British Empire against Aliens and taking their stuff to make them stronger. The United Nations Intelligence Taskforce / Unified Intelligence Taskforce (U.N.I.T.) has a similar goal.
- A subversion in "Day of the Moon", in which it is revealed that many of humanity's technological advancements were ordered by a race of hypnotic, memory-wiping parasite alien things with the aim of getting to the Moon, making it a case of humans giving E.T. wi-fi. Technically they wanted a space suit and not moon travel; mankind just sorta took the ball and ran with it.
- Eerie, Indiana: In "The Loyal Order of Corn", the alien Ned encouraged the development of radio and television.
- The Event: Development of the atomic bomb was pushed ahead by several decades, thanks to the Human Alien Thomas' involvement in the project. The ultimate goal of the aliens, who are stranded on Earth, seems to be to advance humanity's technology so that they have the infrastructure to make it back home.
- Fringe: It is implied that many of Massive Dynamic's tech advances are copied from the parallel universe: the Other Side is far enough ahead of us to be worth copying, but not so far ahead as to be beyond us.
- The sphere on 7Days was based on Roswell tech. Other more mundane technology was also said to have come from Roswell.
- Sliders episode "The Return of Maggie Beckett" showcased a parallel world where The Greys gave Earth new technologies and allowed for significant advances. Rembrandt says he always believed this was the case for his own world and cites several technologies, including Velcro. (Both this and the Enterprise episode listed above were written by Chris Black.)
- It's implied that the only reason the government made the contact with aliens public was because a different President was in office at the time, thanks to World War II lasting longer.
- In a variation, the powers-that-be on Stargate SG-1 were initially disappointed that not enough exploitable alien tech was coming back with the teams. As time passes and they bring in more tech, it starts filtering down to the public. They even fielded a (barely functional) energy weapon.
- In an Alternate Timeline where the stargate was never discovered, technology is noticeably behind the main timeline standard.
- The low rate of transfer is mainly because the SGC has to balance keeping itself secret (not to mention trying not to piss off their offworld allies) with getting a return on the government's investment, and generally leans towards the former. The aforementioned energy weapon is intentionally barely functional in order to simulate trial-and-error development; Carter and the other scientist are able to get it working pretty fast when their lives depend on it.
- Preventing the reverse of this — keeping Human/Federation tech out of the hands of alien civilizations whose society might be altered by it — is one of the original reasons for Star Trek's Prime Directive.
- The second-season Star Trek: Enterprise episode "Carbon Creek" implies that Vulcans stranded on Earth during The 50s sold Velcro to support a child's education.
- Star Trek: Voyager. In "Future's End" the IT revolution happens because a timeship crash lands next to a 60's hippie who becomes an 80's yuppie (probably based on Steve Jobs) by reverse-engineering its technology. Since the Federation tend to put all of human knowledge into the computer of every single starship, Sterling was able to quickly learn what he needs to just by asking the right questions. His progress is stunted when he gets to (then) modern-day technology, however, claiming that he had reached the limit of what he could adapt from the timeship. Presumably, Sterling lacked the technical knowledge and resources to adapt much more complex technologies like transporters and replicators, even though he somehow managed to reproduce holodeck technology (a product of both) in his office (why he never sold that is a mystery). He was planning a trip to the future to get more technology, apparently too egotistical to realize all the logistical problems this would entail (putting aside that he would have blown up future!Earth doing it, it seemed not to occur to him that the future might not appreciate his theft of their technology).
- Taken: In "Jacob and Jesse", the only thing that the Groom Lake research team managed to obtain from the alien ship in eleven years is velcro, which Owen Crawford dismissively describes as "a way to hold up [his] pants without a belt."
- In Assassins Creed, the Templars (and by extension, society) are implied to have gotten all of our advances from reverse-engineering alien artifacts (with a couple of failures, see Philadelphia Experiment (done by by US government, not Templars)). Later on in the series, it turns out it's not aliens exactly, but rather the First Civilization of humans on this planet, who created homo sapiens to serve them but were overthrown and wiped out.
- In Assassin's Creed: Revelations, it's confirmed that Altaïr had learned the design for the first handgun — and forearm-mounted at that! — from a vision given by one of these, which had been implied in Assassin's Creed II. Also, in a brief scene at the beginning of the "Battle of Forli" DLC for II, a brief activation of the Apple shows images of designs that Leonardo da Vinci (who was watching the Apple) would later set to paper.
- In Nexus: The Jupiter Incident, it's heavily implied that the last of the Creators influenced humanity's development up until the 19th century (when the last one died) in order to result in the creation of compatible computing technology and AIs that could merge with Angel, the AI they left behind in an asteroid base near Pluto. All to combat their own creations, the Mechanoids.
- In Freelancer, there are some very vague hints that the Jump Gates used across Sirius have alien origin. Since the plot of the game (and indeed the game itself) went through some revisions, it is unclear if this plot hook was ever meant to have any payoff.
- SCP Foundation, SCP-1073 ("Computing Microbes"). The silicon chip technology that almost 90% of the Earth's computer systems are based on came from information provided by SCP-1073.
- In general, once the Foundation has analyzed something to the point where it's completely understood, they arrange for what they've learned to be released to the general public, since at that point it's no longer considered to be paranormal/anomalous.
- The Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles has a non-E.T. example. All technology was actually invented by the scientists of Greenland City, and they've been secretly sharing their knowledge with the outside world, bit by bit.
- Similar to the 2007 film, Transformers Animated has the robotic technology of the 22nd century all reverse-engineered from Megatron's dormant head.
- According to the Men in Black animated series, most advanced human technology was granted by a benevolent advanced alien race. Computers, hard drives and the Clapper are cited as examples and their patent revenue is The Men in Black's primary source of financing.
- In Megas XLR, this was attempted, but not finished, by the United States government after the Roswell crash. The only thing the Area 51 people managed to create was a rogue Humongous Mecha with an aesthetic of The 50s. Even this wasn't fully realized, though, as it needs an external source of electricity to power itself and accesses data via reels of magnetic tape.
- A variation occurs in the Rick and Morty episode "The Ricks must be Crazy." When the power supply of Rick's car suddenly dies, he takes Morty into the battery, and tells him that he's created a "Microverse," waited until a sapient life form evolved, told them he was an alien and introduced to the wonders of electricity via "Gooble Boxes," which produce the power necessary to run his car when used to run or walk in place. When Morty tells Rick he's essentially enslaved an entire planet, Rick says they aren't slaves since they created a complex society, when Morty says "that's slavery with extra steps," Rick just brushes him off. Inside the Microverse they encounter Zeep, basically a Rick Expy, who created a "Miniverse," waited until a sapient life form evolved, told them he was an alien, and gave them "Flooble Cranks," which produce the electricity needed to power his world, and render the "Gooble Box" obsolete. When Rick tells Zeep he's essentially enslaved an entire planet, Zeep says they aren't slaves since they created a complex society, when Rick says "that's slavery with extra steps," Zeep just brushes him off. Inside the "Miniverse" they find a researcher named Kyle, who's just created a "Teenyverse," and is waiting for a sapient life form to evolve, so that he can give them "Blooble Yanks," a pulley based exercise device that will power his world, and render the "Flooble Crank" obsolete. When Zeep tries to explain that Kyle plans to enslave an entire planet, Kyle says that since the people of the Teenyverse will live in a complex society, they won't be slaves. Just as Zeep begins to explain "that's slavery with extra steps," he figures out what why they are there, and he attacks Rick. Hearing them fight, Kyle figures out that Zeep, Rick, and Morty aren't aliens, that he couldn't make time for his father's funeral because he was making his Teenyverse, and was only born to power Zeep's world. Despite Morty's attempted consolation, Kyle goes into his ship, and crashes it on a nearby cliff side. After being stranded for months inside the "Teenyverse," Rick, Morty, and Zeep make it all the way to the "Microverse," where Rick destroys Zeep's "Miniverse." After escaping the "Mcroverse" Rick starts his car, and tells morty he told Zeep to tell everyone in the "Microverse" that he "would either have toss a broken battery or the battery wouldn't be broken.''
- In a lovely piece of irony, Gillian Anderson apparently believes this.
- A quick Google search confirms she isn't the only one. This little factoid made it hard to search off-TV Tropes for more examples of this trope.
- An episode of The History Channel's UFO Hunters investigated real-life rumors that the SR-71 and B-2 Spirit bomber were a result of this.
- Erich von Daniken is famous for claims that the first human civilizations were created by aliens, similar to the Stargate film.
- Just to give the trope name some credibility, one of the first consumer wi-fi routers was the Apple AirPort Base Station. It looks remarkably like a flying saucer.
- According to a quote in this article, cell phone technology was derived from black hole research. E.T. really did give us WiFi!
- Li Hongzhi, founder of Falun Gong, believes this.