From The Archives: Designing Products For Aliens

More than 60 years ago, MIT students got the coolest assignment of all time

An alien stroller for incubating eggs

The Methanian incubator stoller

Popular Science

In the October 1952 issue of Popular Science, we wrote about the fascinating, but strange, project spearheaded by 20 MIT students. They were tasked with designing new products to export to the Methanians. Before you go looking up what tiny country Methanians might call home, know that you aren't that geographically ignorant. The Methanians were a breed of aliens thought up by John E. Arnold, a mechanical engineering professor at MIT. Supposedly, they live on the fictional fourth planet of the real star Arcturus, where gravity is such that everyone weighs 11 times more than they would on earth. Instead of water there's ammonia, and the atmosphere is made of methane.

An alien lounge chair

The Methanian lounge chair

Popular Science

Arnold was well-known for his creativity and contributions to education philosophy. And honestly, if you had an engineering design class that asked you to create products to export to aliens, you might stop napping and pay attention. Arnold used this case study as a way to train budding engineers and scientists to think beyond the limits of what's currently possible. Students had to shift their thinking to incorporate the environmental differences on Arcturus IV, eschewing the facts of life we normally take for granted (oxygen, for example). They had a few documents which they used to get some background on this alien world.

These facts are gathered into a workbook, which opens with a solemn warning from the general manager of Massachusetts Intergalactic Traders, Inc., typed on his own letterhead, that "any person not cleared who reads further in this file does so at their own risk and is subject to the extreme penalty of the law." From there on, the student finds himself in the world of 2951 AD. A confidential memo from Massachusetts Intergalactic Traders to Terran Exporting Counsel Headquarters asks for further information about the newly discovered Arcturus IV for use in designing articles to export to that new market. Letters, memoranda and research reports, all on 2951 letterheads, tell how exploring parties visit the Methanians at their great city, Snafu, (pop. 15,500,000), learn their language, study their life and do market research on their needs. With this to guide him. the student quickly becomes an expert on Arcturus IV.

As you might guess, the case study is incredibly detailed. For example, students had to keep the body type of the Methanians in mind. Since they were descendants of birds instead of mammals, their faces were beak-like, they had long arms (evidence they once had wings) and lightweight, hollow bones. Their bodies were covered with furry feathers, though they also wore clothes. Another key fact: Methanians had the power of x-ray vision thanks to a third eye. And for some reason, they also had hooves.

Very uncomfortable looking chairs for aliens

Methanian chairs that look very uncomfortable

Popular Science

With all of this information in a document of about 100 pages, the students designed some equally absurd devices. One was a portable incubator to house aliens' eggs before they hatched—though apparently Methanian scientists thought this too radical of a change from the traditional methods of carrying them in pouches. Another such invention was an uncomfortable-looking chair (but hey, I'm no Methanian, so who am I to judge). And because the class also had a workshop, some students actually built models of their odd creations. As funny as the project seems, it looks like it worked.

All too many scientists don't care to speculate; they leave that to the science-fiction writers. Industry seems to agree with Arnold that it needs product designers. His students find a wide choice of jobs offered them on graduation; the demand is greater than the supply. One man last year got a $7,800 job right after commencement—so Arcturus IV apparently pays off in good earth dollars. Meanwhile the design of new products for the Methanian market goes ahead. Rapid transportation needs—automatic controls are called for because of the Methanians' slow reaction time—are still to be met. Something must be done about the burrowing animals that eat the Methanian crops. Methanian agriculture in general is still mostly hand work; all sorts of farm machinery are needed to raise the standard of living. The industrial designers of Massachusetts Intergalactic Traders — MIT to you — have plenty to do. Whenever our space explorers really get going, they'll find the products ready for an export drive such as the Milky Way has never seen.

If you would like to buy a copy of the case study, it looks like you can for the low low price of $2,778.76. You can also read more from the 1953 issue here.