In many exotic locations such as the Bazaar of the Bizarre, the Black Market, the Mad Scientist Laboratory, the Wizard's Cave, Darkest Africa, or The Future, there will be a lot of odd bits of mysterious... Stuff... Lying about. What is it? What does it do? Why is it there?
Well, chances are it isn't anything. While some of it may be a genuine bit of Applied Phlebotinum put there as Foreshadowing, much of the time it's just Cow Tools: Props or artwork that the designer of the scene threw in to add to the color or atmosphere of the place. This doesn't stop the fans from wildly speculating about them, though. Cow Tools are similar to Noodle Implements in that they both invite speculation; the difference is that the former are completely obscure while the latter are ordinary in and of themselves but have a mysterious and unexplained connection to some event.
Named for a notorious The Far Side cartoon showing a set of primitive looking but vaguely familiar tools which a bipedal cow is showing off. In a compilation book with a section dedicated to screw-ups and controversial comics, creator Gary Larson said it was the strip he'd gotten the most inquiries about as people tried in vain to figure out what the hell they were for (one letter wrote "What is the meaning of Cow Tools? What is the meaning of life?"), when in fact Larson hadn't meant them to be anything but strange. He got the idea from an anthropology class regarding animals using tools, and wondered what it would be like if cows had tools. He thinks his biggest mistake was thinking this was funny, which it was for different reasons than what he intended, and he regretted making one of the tools look vaguely like a saw, thus implying the rest had real-world counterparts.
On the other hand, the fact that there is No Such Thing as Bad Publicity no doubt attracted more readers to the strip and boosted Larson's circulation. Go figure.
One thing about Cow Tools is that it can be useful for hiding a clever Chekhov's Gun among them. Everything else has no purpose in the story, except for that one thing...
- Apothecary Alligator: No magician, alchemist, or apothecary's shop is complete without a stuffed alligator.
- Empty Room Psych: A video game version of this—the empty room or mysterious device doesn't actually do anything, it's just for flavor.
- Gratuitous Laboratory Flasks: The glassware has no plot significance; it's just visual shorthand for "Science is happening here."
- Jack Kirby covered everything in Cow Tools. He was incapable of drawing a simple box; every device had innumerable chrome tubes, knobs, discs, and zigzags to no apparent purpose. Guess he wanted his machines to complement the dots they generated.
- Parodies like Twisted Toyfare Theatre have a ball with this. "Help me lift this giant piece of Kirby-esque machinery!"
- The Sandman. Lying between every Call-Back and Call-Forward in Dream's storage areas is two or more utterly useless, but fantastical looking thingiemajjigs.
- The Far Side: Gary Larson drew a number of cartoons with objects that aren't supposed to have any apparent function:
- The trope namer is a cartoon in which a cow presents some oddly shaped tools on a table, with the caption, "Cow tools." The joke is that if cows had tools, they would be crude and strange, but many readers wanted to analyze the shapes of the tools for a deeper message.
- In another strip, gangsters torturing a hostage bring out what they call "Mr. Thingy," which looks like a fishing rod attached to a bicycle horn with a carrot on the string.
- In "Edgar finds his purpose," a man digging around the couch finds a ball with springs coming off of it, including one with a duck's head attached.
- MAD has an article which broke down the budget of your average episode of ER. Amongst things like Gucci toe tags there were "beeping machines," "blinking machines," and "machines with accordion thingies inside that go 'schwoom schwoom.'"
- Bag Enders episode "A Shortcut to Whitby" features the "long bent thing with sort of a knob on the end" (inspired by a similar item on an episode of The Goon Show). The Fellowship lose it before they find out what it does, and the people who find it by the side of the road don't know either.
- In All's Fine that Ends Okay, Kiku is sent a mysterious object which does absolutely nothing but turn Hercules and Sadiq - and only them - invisible. After that arc is resolved, it doesn't really do anything else, and no one actually figures out what it is or how it works.
- As logical in Thirty Hs, there are machines that do literally nothing but hum softly and blink. Like everything else, they are never again mentioned beyond that line.
- Played for horror in Eugenesis when the Autobots get a look inside the basement where the Quintessons were performing their experiments. They find all sorts of nightmarish Cow Tools that they cant even begin to comprehend, such as a suit of armor made out of people. They, quite understandably, give up on trying to figure out what the Quintessons were doing and just fill the place with cement.
- Used as a gag in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Even Dumbledore doesn't know what most of the nicknacks in his office actually do, since every previous Headmaster added their own pieces; the ones he has figured out are just pointless things like counting the, er, "sneezes" of French Witches (he refuses to explain how he figured that out). At one point he cheerfully tells Harry that Minerva is never going to figure out what his own contribution does.
- In Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, during the flashback to the Joker's death, there's a shot of some innocent junk lying around (a toilet plunger, for example). Word of God says that Joker's tray was originally going to have bloody surgical instruments but the execs put their foot down. Ironically, since it's made quite clear they were still used to torture Robin, the use of cow tools made the implications even worse.
- Basil of Baker Street has a lot of these lying around his flat in The Great Mouse Detective. Most have a fairly easily discernible purpose, though — for example devices for producing cigarette ash and footprints for analysis.
- Merlin's cottage in Disney's The Sword in the Stone. It's full of little gizmos and gadgets Merlin is said to have acquired from the future. Some, like a globe, a model of the solar system, and vehicles like trains and biplanes, can be recognized. The rest are simply eye candy. (Or maybe they are from so far in the future our present hasn't caught up to them yet and we won't know what they do until it does.)
- Famously lampshaded in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, where the labs are full of Cow Tools. "What's that watermelon doing there?" [in a hydraulic press of some sort]. "I'll explain later."
- Lampshaded by a joke in Airplane II, where William Shatner's character is annoyed by a big fancy machine that doesn't actually do anything. For bonus points, it's the same blinking tube device from Star Trek II, and it also appears in the Alien Nation movie and elsewhere. It's a popular prop.
- Some of the 2015 technology in Back to the Future Part II is deliberately left unexplained. For example, we never find out what "lithium mode" is when Marty Sr activates it upon returning home.
- The painful-looking information retrieval implements in Brazil are surely related.
- While only talked about and never seen, the three seashells from Demolition Man. Much like the Far Side cartoon, it confused audiences into wondering how this futuristic toilet paper was supposed to work. Many fan theories exist, including one by Sandra Bullock, who was still getting questions about it twenty years later.
- Event Horizon had a medic named CJ, who was carrying a vast array of not-very-useful tools on his vest. His actor initially wanted the character to wear the items to aid in character design, but quickly found them cumbersome and irritating. No medic or paramedic would want such a strange rig; there are much more elegant solutions to keeping your gear handy and much more important gear to have within immediate reach.
- A deleted scene from Galaxy Quest has the aliens showing the cast of the eponymous Show Within a Show around the ship. When the Spock Expy looks in quarters, he sees some bizarre machine that looks like some kind of shielded power core with tubes and stirrups. For bonus points, this also falls under Bizarre Alien Biology, as it's stated that it's supposed to be his fictional race's equivalent of a toilet.
- In Ghostbusters (1984), Venkman enters Dana's flat operating a strange device with a long tube and a rubber bulb that appears to pump air through the tube. When she asks what it does, he replies vaguely "It's... technical. One of our little toys." The commentary reveals that Bill Murray was given a selection of Cow Tools to choose from, and thought that one was the funniest. It's actually a device for detecting noxious gasses in the air, used by sewer workers.
- Subverted in Gran Torino. Walt's garage is filled with hundreds of tools, and Thao points to several of them at random and challenges Walt to name them. Walt knows what each one is called and what it's used for.
- The Live-Action Adaptation of Inspector Gadget had Tinkertoys, a dead fish, garden hose and many other strange things alongside traditional operating tools. The 'autopsy' sequence showed that he was full of apparently useless and unrelated Cow Tools.
- Tony Stark's machine shop in Iron Man exemplifies this trope. At some points it seems like there's more stuff in there than you could possibly logically need to build a super suit, regardless of how complex that might be. Things like a pillar drill are necessary for any well-funded chronic tinkerer. Among the various tools and equipment is the prototype for Captain America's shield. Tony uses it to prop something else up.
- Unexplained bits of tech are sometimes thrown in as a joke in Q's laboratory in James Bond films.
- Dr. Orin Scrivello's rather painful-looking dentist's tools in Little Shop of Horrors certainly qualify for this. They made a reappearance in Dead Ringers as gynecological equipment designed by a gynecologist suffering a mental breakdown, before appearing in Tim Burton's Batman (1989) as the plastic surgeon's equipment, too. And were lampshaded with his forlorn "You see what I have to work with..." That was an Actor Allusion, as Jack Nicholson appeared in the original Little Shop.
- Lockjaw: Rise of the Kulev Serpent: What on earth is that device that Kelly constructs out of a lamp and some cutlery supposed to be? He carries all the way through the final hunt for the monster, and it serves no appreciable purpose whatsoever.
- In The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Elrond is seen fiddling with a telescope... thing.
- Parodied in The Mask when Doyle and another cop are frisking an under-arrest Stanley Ipkiss (in his Mask persona) while an increasingly exasperated Lieutenant Kellaway looks on. The cops name each item they pull from Ipkiss's (surprisingly deep) pockets - and then Doyle pulls from the left pocket the commonly seen squeeze toy for stressed people of a clown whose eyes, nose and ears bug out when it's squeezed. Doyle - who isn't the brightest bulb in the Edge City police department - looks at it blankly for two seconds and then says "I don't know."
- Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. "This is the machine that goes 'Ping'. It tells us that your baby is still alive." Somehow, it does so without being hooked up to the expectant mother. Likewise from the same scene, The Most Expensive Machine in the Hospital, whose purpose is apparently...to be The Most Expensive Machine in the Hospital.
- Tia Dalma's hut in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is stuffed full of voodoo-related Cow Tools. There's so many that two Chekhov's Guns among them (Barbossa's boots and Calypso's locket) are easily missed.
- In Predator, the Predator is injured by Mac during the More Dakka scene, and uses a variety of alien Cow Tools to patch the wound. According to the director, these are based off of actual veterinary tools.
- The film The Shape of Things to Come, fondly remembered by B-movie fans as "Blinky Blinky" due to the tons of weird machines with blinking lights in almost every scene.
- There is a scene in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow (1999) where Ichabod is doing an autopsy; there is a tray full of strange, complex looking surgical tools next to him. What they're for and how they work is anybody's guess, but they do resemble some of the more esoteric medical devices from the era. Ichabod handwaves it by saying some of the tools are of his own design.
- Star Wars: In The Phantom Menace, several implements hanging on the wall of Anakin and his mother's home on Tatooine are actually NERF scoops spraypainted to resemble alien tools of some kind.
- Dr. Cal Meacham's lab in This Island Earth is full of random equipment.
Crow T. Robot: Increase the Flash Gordon noise and put more science stuff around!
- Subverted in Total Recall (1990). Quaid takes an unfamiliar-looking handgun-like device from the suitcase he was given earlier. He looks at it, then puts it next to his pistol. A short time later, we find out that it's a device for removing tracking chips implanted in one's head.
- The interior of the Seaview in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and its TV follow-up is full of random flashing lights, switches, screens, boxes, and wires that don't serve any apparent purpose. The lights are so prominent a character actually says "it's always Christmas on a submarine."
- In "Allamagoosa", by Eric Frank Russell, the ship is being inspected by Admiral Beancounter, and the crew realizes the manifest states theyre missing an "offog", which no one on board recognizes. The pressing concern for most of the story is not what it actually is, but that they have to have one, so they throw together a gadget with blinking lights and lots of controls to please the Admiral. The scheme works, until they make the mistake of reporting the thing destroyed, only to belatedly learn that "offog" was a misprint...
- In The Belgariad, Belgarath's tower is full of odd gadgets that are implied to be instruments he's invented to help in his eclectic research over the course of seven millennia. For example, one of them was meant to help him discover why mountains exist, but he can't put into layman's terms exactly how it was supposed to do that. note
- The Chronicles of Narnia: In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we see some stuff like this in Coriakin's lair. The most prominent example is the Bearded Glass, which is... well... a mirror with a beard attached. When someone passes, their reflected face looks like that of a bearded weirdo jumping out of the shadows. It may serve some purpose, or Coriakin may have simply put it there to prank what few visitors he gets. Even C. S. Lewis said he didn't know what it's for.
- In Harry Potter:
- Voldemort hid a Horcrux in the Room of Requirement, where students have been hiding random junk for centuries. When he hid it, a bunch of other random stuff was there, and it's speculated whether Voldemort thought that was created by magic, or whatever, because he claimed that he was the first to find it. Admittedly all of the room's other forms really do stock themselves by magic, so it wasn't that much of a leap.
- All the insanely weird stuff in the Department of Mysteries.
- Dumbledore's office has a variety of inventions, which he can use whenever, but which are beyond the realm of the audience's understanding. There's at least one that he uses in Harry's presence, and it's still up for grabs what the hell it was.
- Several Discworld books note that every proper wizard has a stuffed alligator hanging from the ceiling of his laboratory, even if there aren't any alligators naturally in the area. No one, especially the wizards, is sure why.
- Also lampshaded a few times: Archchancellor Ridcully, in a pinch and pressed for time, manages to perform the ominous Rite of Ash-Kente to summon and bind Death with two candles, an egg and some string. Wizards like all the ornamentation, though; and besides, the more difficult and complex the ritual, the less likely that some random idiot who doesn't really know what he's doing will try it.
- The Department of
NecromancyPost-Mortem Communications is full of dribbly candles, cobwebs, skeletons and assorted Cow Tools, because if a spirit is going to make the effort of piercing the veil and returning to the living world, a wizard ought to make the effort to see that things look right.
- Also, nobody knows what most of the stuff hooked up to Hex actually does, including Ponder Stibbons and Adrian Turnipseed, who built the thing in the first place.
- Although this is also because Hex has a habit of adding things all by itself!
- The addition of Anoia, goddess of things that get stuck in drawers, to the Discworld pantheon has provided excuses for many kitchenware Cow Tools to have their inexplicable and/or useless presence in everyone's cupboards lampshaded.
- In Spider Robinson's Lady Slings the Booze, the narrator, a Private Detective specifically Lamp Shades the fact that in his profession, it is vitally important to be able to accurately observe and describe whatever he sees. He then enters the laboratory of the resident Mad Scientist, which he is only able to describe as "a rectangular solid filled with stuff", to his great chagrin.
- Subverted in the Niven and Pournelle work The Mote in God's Eye when the Moties present the humans with a room filled with what appear to be Cow Tools but are not. The tool room is actually an "IQ" test of sorts. The humans are expected to determine the flaw in each tool which renders it useless. Naturally the person who figures this out is the ship's engineer.
- Dragaera: During Vlad's first private conversation with Zerika, the Empress leads him along a very long, featureless corridor that doesn't connect to anything, it just loops around from the throne room to the throne room. The two of them surmise that it only exists because members of House Phoenix and House Tiassa find it easier to think about things as they're walking; for an Emperor or Empress from any other House, the corridor would be this trope.
- Every Mad Scientist has to have a plasma lamp, evidently to show his technological prowess, regardless of the fact that every Spencer Gifts and Circuit City in the world sells them for about $25 each. Also, some piece of machinery topped with a "Jacob's ladder" spark gap, plus flasks of colored (optionally foaming) liquid, as all mad scientists apparently dabble in chemistry by default.
- A standard gag on many "bad movie" review sites: "Beakers of strangely colored fluids? There must be SCIENCE going on here!"
- In Babylon 5, maintenance extras regularly walk around pointing vaguely cleaner-like or metal-detector-like gadgets at the floor. In A View From The Gallery two of them even speculate on what they are for.
- A lot of the Medlab equipment counts as well. Of note is a sort of metal collar that goes around a patient's torso, while lighted panels on the top flash in sequence (except for one episode where one of the lights appeared to have burnt out and no one fixed it). Word of God is that the guy brought in to advise on the medical aspects of the show had some pet theory involving light being used to heal people in the future.
- Subverted with the Shelves of Honor on The Colbert Report. The shelves full of apparently random junk that line one wall of the set might be expected to be Cow Tools, but just about everything on there has some significance. See Wikiality's detailed analysis.
- Doctor Who:
- The TARDIS has always had way more buttons, knobs, levers, and random knickknacks than they ever actually use or have any kind of meaning for, but in recent years, the main console has gone so far as to include illogically placed bits and pieces of just about every kind of household object imaginable, including for instance most of a typewriter with no ribbon or paper.
- The Adventure Game series had the interesting but unenviable task of actually explaining what everything on the TARDIS console does. They should get a medal.
- The Doctor has occasionally given some of the things on the console nicknames similar to the "Timey-Wimey Detector".
- Since the 2012 Christmas special, the console room (particularly the console itself) has returned to a more minimalistic and more clearly arranged design, generally less random/convoluted/whimsical than the previous one◊. It's also a lot closer to the similarly austere designs of the console room from the classic era of the show.
- Although in 2018 the Cow Tools started coming back. But at least we know that one of them dispenses Custard Creams.
- Discussed in the DVD commentary for the serial "The Caves of Androzani", when a man gets his head shoved in between two parts of a futuristic machine thing which immediately starts glowing. The serial's director notes that "we don't know what it does, but it's killing him".
- "Dalek": "Broken. Broken. Hair dryer..." One has to wonder what the others would have done if they'd been working (Cow Weapons?). Not to mention the other contents of Henry van Statten's alien museum.
- Subverted in "The Family of Blood". John Smith (the Doctor as an ordinary human) enters the Family's spaceship and clumsily struggles with some seemingly meaningless controls. The Family considers him a harmless buffoon. The subversion is that the Doctor had already been restored to his old self, and he was setting the ship to self-destruct.
- "Blink": "Tracked you down with this. This is my timey-wimey detector. Goes ding when there's stuff. Also, it can boil an egg at 30 paces. Whether you want it to or not, actually, so I've learned to stay away from hens. It's not pretty when they blow."
- In "The Day of the Doctor", the War Doctor carries the Moment to a barn in the desert; apparently once an agricultural area before it dried up, as when he enters the barn we see derelict farming equipment of an unfamiliar design strewn about.
- The TARDIS has always had way more buttons, knobs, levers, and random knickknacks than they ever actually use or have any kind of meaning for, but in recent years, the main console has gone so far as to include illogically placed bits and pieces of just about every kind of household object imaginable, including for instance most of a typewriter with no ribbon or paper.
- In the game show Liar's Club, four celebrity panelists would be given an actual device or implement, and three of them would invent cow tool explanations for what they were used for. The contestants would have to try to spot the one celebrity who was telling the truth about it.
- Mythbusters has the real special effects studio M-5 as their base of operations, with all sorts of equipment that comes in handy for testing myths. The shop itself is constantly cluttered with devices, tools and a wall of cubby shelves with interesting labels that are more or less accurate ("Raw Meat" is one in particular that we hope is less). At one point trying to do a scale test, they needed an action figure and after a minute Jamie produced one from one of the cubbies. At other points devices from past and upcoming episodes can be seen in the background. Props from other films the studio has worked on are also around.
- The "Raw Meat" label is actually one of a few that the producers insisted be put around to make the space more ... cow tooly.
- Other labels include "Putrid Pork" and "Fresh Fish".
- Invoked in one episode. While testing the myth of shooting the gun out of a person's hand, Adam builds a target that is a flat metal object shaped like a gun with a big wide target on the front. While showing it off to the viewer, he comments that he imagines archaeologists digging it up in a thousand years and wondering just what the hell its purpose was.
- Lots of the items stocked at Obscura, the weird antiques shop on Oddities, consists of gadgets that probably qualified as Cow Tools even when they were brand-new, and certainly do now that they're long-obsolete.
- Lampshaded, used straight and subverted in the laboratory where Galina Sergeivna works in the Russian comedy Papas Daughters. Often they will be doing serious work, sometimes brewing tea or vodka, but most of the time it is just bubbling water colors.
- In The Red Green Show, junk-store owner Dalton Humphrey finds an odd looking device in his garage, and has to resist the male urge to keep it until he figures out what it's for.
- Sam's lab in Stargate SG-1 includes some things that are supposedly alien technology she's analyzing. Some of it has an obvious purpose, some of it is from previous episodes, but most of it is completely random.
- Turned around in one episode where an alien, who's lost his memory, is working on a TV show and one of his actual alien devices is being used as a Cow Tools prop in the show.
- Many of the tubes, conduits, and access panels of the dressing the original Star Trek sets were labeled with the cryptic acronym GNDN to remind the stage crew that this or that prop machinery was merely for show and that it "Goes Nowhere, Does Nothing".
- One great example that was used as a recurring plot device is the self sealing stem bolts in several episodes of Deep Space Nine. It is pretty much a case of lampshading, as Jake and Nog try to make some money out of a wrong delivery that was about to land in the garbage, but only end up with more useless junk until they finally get their hands on a shipment of self sealing stem bolts. As Jake points out, neither of them has any idea what they are used for. Later on in the series the self sealing stem bolts make a few reappearances. Every single time, there seems to be someone who knows what they're for, but not any of the characters on screen.
- For the Star Trek mess hall, the set dressers went out to various shops and bought a bunch of unusual salt and pepper shakers. However, they were all considered too confusing for the viewer and normal looking ones were used. They got put to good use however, as they were put in the Sick Bay as futuristic medical devices.
- Whenever a Star Trek crew member removes a panel from a wall, they're always filled with futuristic circuitry and other such phlebotinum. At one point, they were overused so much in episodes that set decorator Jim Mees had to politely remind the writing staff that he had to build each and every panel interior, and that they cost about $1000 each. They became known internally as "Mees panels".
- This was lampshaded decades later in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Trials and Tribble-ations" when the crew travelled back in time to the Star Trek TOS era. Miles O'Brien, the station's resident Techno Wizard, can't make heads or tails of the circuitry behind the Mees panel (keep in mind this is the same guy that can very adeptly Techno Babble his way through solving just about anything). When he encounters a real Enterprise engineer and screws up his "repair work," Dr. Bashir has to bail him out by claiming O'Brien is suffering from work-related stress and ushering him off to sickbay.
- One version◊ of B'Elanna's uniform had a front pocket with a row of Cow Tools poking out, as befits her role as Chief Engineer.
- In the episode "Hollywood Babylon" of Supernatural, the Concept Art of the monster from Hell Hazers II: The Reckoning shows him holding a flaming fraternity paddle with chainsaw blades around it. They never explain the purpose of this implement.
- The Whose Line Is It Anyway? game "Props": the performers are handed a Cow Tool, and they invent several possible uses for it.
- "The Marvellous Toy" written by Tom Paxton and most famously performed by Peter, Paul and Mary is about a Cow Tool toy:
It went "Zip!" when it moved
And "Pop!" when it stopped
And "Whirr!" when it stood still.
I never knew just what it was
And I guess I never will.
- The eponymous "thing" (represented by a "thump, thump-thump" sound in the lyrics) in bandleader Phil Harris's novelty song "The Thing" may qualify for this trope. The singer never describes the "thing"; the listener only knows that it's something nobody wants to look at, let alone deal with.
I picked it up and ran to town as happy as a king
I took it to a guy I knew who'd buy most anything
But this is what he hollered at me as I walked in his shop:
"Ohhhhh, get out of here with that [thump thump-thump]
Before I call a cop!"
- "The Machine" by Lemon Demon (better known as Neil Cicierega), is all about a man building the titular machine, which, as the chorus tells us, "doesn't do anything". which is, apparently, the whole point of it.
- As mentioned above, in The Goon Show episode "The International Christmas Pudding", Seagoon's collection of vital equipment included a "long bent thing with a sort of lump on the end." The episode "Wings over Dagenham" also had a throwaway gag about "Long twisted things with holes in the end" being used as currency.
- The 2E D&D supplement Arms & Equipment Guide included a description of tinker gnome "armor", a full suit of leather with so many assorted Cow Tools affixed to its every surface that it functioned like studded leather armor.
- Oddities in Numenera. They have no use for an adventurer (unless they're unusually clever), and often no discernible use at all, but they have superscientific properties that make them interesting to scholars and collectors
- The alien bases in the X-COM games are stuffed with these. Seizing said bases (or sufficiently equipped alien craft) even nets you research angles revolving around the insidious uses of the devices, (useless as they may be to humans). Heck, some of them are even literal Cow Tools (either for use on cows, or made out of cows).
- Half-Life 2:
- Dr. Kleiner's lab has a working mini-teleporter among the other seemingly random devices.
- Watermelons also appear in the oddest places. A The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension homage?
- Fallout 3's Mothership Zeta. The shelves of the interior corridors of the alien spaceship from Fallout 3's final expansion are adorned with all varieties of Cow Tools.
- Fallout 4 has a repeatable mission where the Brotherhood of Steel send you to collect some piece of technology from the Wasteland (the recovery and study of old technology being their creed.) The target item will be either a "flux sensor", "haptic drive", or "reflex capacitor", none of which have any in-game use, or description.
- In The Official Book Of King's Quest, the hints section for the first game notes that the rusted pump and axe outside the woodcutter's cottage were "put there by evil animators trying to drive you crazy figuring out what to do with them".
- In King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder! there is a strange astronomical-looking device outside Crispin's house, which is one of the first things in the game that you're likely to see. It serves no purpose whatsoever, and your annoying sidekick warns you not to touch it.
- Toyed with in King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow. The Pawn Shop has dozens of bizarre items on the shelves that you can look at but not buy. If you look at them, the narration will identify things like "whale tongue climbing gear" and a "bridge repair kit". The joke is that these are all things which would have been immensely useful in earlier games but are completely useless in this one.
- The Myst series and its sequels has plenty of these. Most of the time you can puzzle out the various tools that Atrus and Gehn have lying around, but many of the other things are a mystery. On the other hand, sometimes a seemingly-innocuous doodad will prove to be a vital clue. The most prominent example in the first game is the assortment of odd little gadgets and other personal effects that can be found in Sirrus and Achenar's bedrooms: Nothing in there is used solving any puzzles other than a Plot Coupon or two and the rooms initially appear to be a classic case of Empty Room Psych, but if you're paying attention you can learn quite a bit about their personalities, none of it particularly flattering. This is the key to solving the final puzzle and Driving Question of the whole game: Which of the sons of Atrus should you trust? The answer, as it turns out, is "neither of them".
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy had the "Thing Your Aunt Gave You that You Don't Know What it Is." It can be a Game-Breaker if you figure out that it CAN do something.
- It's more-or-less a Bag of Holding that Arthur Dent can't permanently lose (no matter how extreme or ludicrous a calamity he narrowly escapes without it) nor deliberately rid himself of.
- The Geneforge series is littered with Vendor Trash generically described as "Shaper Equipment" and exotic looking props, some of which can be interacted with a "that's not important" Hand Wave. Presumably the characters know what they are; whether the player is ever informed draws the line between Cow Tools and MacGuffin.
- Sigil in Planescape: Torment is jam-packed with odd-looking buildings, twisted sculptures, and bizarre devices that you have no idea what they're for. You can click on them to get a description. Many of them will then say "You have no idea what this is for."
- On the other hand, there is a shop filled with bizarrely-described items, almost all of which turn out to be crucial plot tokens. (Just not the baby oil made from real babies.)
- Lots of old platformers (but especially Mega Man) have many, many levels in labs and power-stations and so on; the walls are always covered in computer-buttons, giant gears, and in general, anything science-y looking, since how else would you know you were in the future?
- Many tech-y places in Pokémon games will have machines and computers with various descriptions. Sometimes justified in the earlier games where the player characters look younger and might just not know. Rarely, an important gadget or message will be hidden in one.
- It's a lot of words and numbers that don't make any sense...Lights in different colors are flashing on and off.I wonder what this machine is? Better not touch it!
- The magic shops in the Quest for Glory games play with this constantly. For instance: In Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire, Keapon Laffin's shop holds a scale model of the USS Enterprise, a rotary fan, xray specs (useful for one scene and only one scene).
- Silent Hill does this to memorable extremes. Often the Cow Tools are nondescript everyday items, but it's where they are that makes them this. Why is there a wheelchair in an alleyway? Why is there only a single desk perfectly centered in an otherwise completely empty room? It's only there so the wheel can spin on its own the next time you pass it or to giggle in a child's voice as you approach it.
- The Glider PRO CD "SpacePods" even has one room titled "Function Unknown." Most of the supposedly alien furniture is really ordinary furniture objects that have been bizarrely arranged or graphically glitched.
- Parodied in Mass Effect: Andromeda. Ryder and Liam explore an abandoned Kett lab and, not knowing what any of the equipment is, decide to just call everything inside a Weird Alien Machine for the time being. Amusingly subverted when they fiddle with one Weird Alien Machine and it turns out to be a simple generator, to Ryders exasperation.
- Taken to Landscape size level in Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, as part of its Ghibli Hills Scenery Porn. Surrounding the kingdom of Ding Dong Dell are several rock spires reaching the cloud ceiling sporting a ''sky island'' on top, but beyond giving Roland a reason to realise that, nope, this isn't Kansas any longer (or DC for the matter), they remain inaccessible throughout the game.
- Inverted in Horizon Zero Dawn: There are plenty of artifacts from the Before Times that can be found throughout the game, that are all readily identifiable to the player but not so much to the characters. For example, a corkscrew is identified as a toothpick, a keyring with keys as a set of chimes and a pacemaker as a necklace.
- Girl Genius, set in a world ruled by Mad Science, is, of course, full of these. Notable examples in Gil's Lab and the handy circus repair kit.
- Schlock Mercenary famously has 'fiddly bits,' small balls on rods sticking out of things, on almost every piece of tech. Sometimes their function is obvious (sights on guns) or can be assumed (wifi access on computer pads?), but many are complete mysteries. They can appear on everything from hand-held devices and pieces of clothing, to entire starships with gigantic fiddly bits. They remain one of the author's favorite inventions.
- In Oglaf, the Mistress' torture implements here and here. (Warning: NSFW)
- In Prague Race Sela's shop is chock full of strange things, some of which can be identified like suits of armor and masks and some of which can't even by those trying to sell them.
- Sandra and Woo's strip Coon Tools is a raccoon-related variant of the original cartoon. And either a subversion or an aversion, since it's quite clear what the tools are.
- In Commander Kitty, quite a few of the tools that the Alpha Droids have assembled to remove CK's brain seem to fall into this category.
- In The Mansion of E, the eponymous structure has numerous examples of these scattered about.
- At one point in Narbonic Dr. Madblood shows Dave his workbench of test-tubes full of colored liquids. He takes offense when Dave points out that, as a roboticist, he has absolutely no use for any sort of colored liquids.
Madblood: "I find this line of questioning obscene! What sort of mad scientist neglects his flasks of colored liquids?"
- Adventure Time: In Castle Lemongrab, Finn and Jake find a hallway connecting several small, identical rooms, each one holding nothing but a pedestal with a catcher's mitt on top. Storyboard artist Thomas Herpich said in his blog that these rooms were simply meant to be "weird and mysterious", but later was explained to be Lemongrab's disturbingly inept attempt at trying to understand normal society.
- Danny Phantom where a couple of Jack Fenton's invented ghost weaponry are so oddly shaped or out of place that one wonders what the blinding hell they do exactly. His wife pointed out a similar reason in one episode.
- Dexter's Laboratory is the king of this trope, featuring an enormous variety of technological inventions in Dexter's lab that are never explained and their use is never revealed. Many times, Dexter will be seen working on a particular gizmo (almost always by simply tweaking it with a wrench) that very, very rarely has any importance in the plot.
- Lampshaded by one commercial for the show, that showed a loop of Dexter using his wrench on said gizmo for several seconds before the narrator says "Y'know, eventually, he's got to overtighten that thing."
- Rick and Morty features plenty of these, but has a running gag about one in particular. The Plumbus: every home has one.
- The Simpsons
- In "Homer vs. Patty and Selma" Homer has a dream where he's rich and successful after inventing some kind of device. Both Homer and the viewers are left equally clueless as to what the device is or what it does.
- In ThunderCats (2011) Lion-O introduces new friend Cheetara to the shop of Jorma, his Friend in the Black Market. His shop is stuffed with oddball wares, including a Chekhov's Gun Black Box, and an arm from a race of Cute Machines introduced later.
- The Venture Bros. pokes fun at the idea when Billy has to face... The Nozzle, during his recruitment to OSI. It comes out, calibrates, and then just goes without so much as even touching him.
Billy: What was that thing?
Hunter: I have no idea. Standard... um... so how do you like your new body buddies?
- Those annoying Netgear router blue flashing lights. You know what they are.
- Half the buttons on your remote.
- Any place where tools, spare parts or electronic equipment is stored will have a few of these. Slightly downplayed in that all of it clearly had a vital function at some point, but it hasn't been needed in quite some time, and chances are nobody can quite recall what it was originally used for.
- Any factory floor, automotive garage, or maintenance shop is this to the uninformed/untrained visitor.
- Subverted: Modular Synthesizers◊ almost always look like old pretend sci-fi tech, but in fact every knob, button and blinking light serves a purpose.
- The vast array of tools found in a dentist's office.
- Unfortunately, the Steampunk subculture's costuming element is almost completely dominated by this trope, a fact which this song laments. It is a particular tragedy in Steampunk's case because, where the Victorians were concerned, the entire reason why things looked good was that said things were a product of genuinely superior and more careful craftmanship. The Steampunk scenesters have essentially turned that ethic entirely on its head, with predictably distressing results.
- Any chemist whose lab has ever been on television will tell you of atmosphere shots of a serious lab-coated chemist pipetting coloured water from a conical flask.
- The drawer. Every house has some variant of this, where every little random part, tool, and device that can't be identified is tossed because "it might be from something important"/"it might be something important"/"it might be an important part of something else". Go ahead, just try and determine what even a fraction of the things in there even are, let alone what they are used for.
- A German local museum displayed various professions' old tools, among them some ostensibly belonging to a midwife. They were there for quite some time before a visiting veterinarian pointed out that unless giving birth in times past involved castrating a sheep, these prongs did not belong with the rest.
- In the 18th-19th centuries, it became fashionable among British gentry to have old ruins ("follies") adorning their properties. Those who had no ruins resorted to building fake ones that had no function but to look old and mysterious.
- Vestigial organs have lost their original function over the course of evolution and often become completely useless. But since they don't threaten the organism's survival note the organisms continue to be born with them.