Thought Leadership

Alien technology?

By Colin Walls

In broad terms, there are two kinds of people in the world: there are those who can accept technology or phenomena without questioning it or having to understand how it operates; and there are those who are afflicted with the Need to Know. I am a sufferer of this affliction.

There are many things that I do satisfactorily understand, but a particular one eludes me …

My need to understand stuff is just that – a real need. If I am presented with, for example, a piece of technology, the principles of which I do not understand, I am very discomforted. Most of the time a little research assuages my anxiety – Google is my friend. It is not necessary for me to become an expert. I just need enough knowledge to grasp the ideas and concepts so that it no longer seems like magic. For example, I could give a short lecture on how cellular telephony works [indeed, I have done that before now], but I do not have the skills to design a cellphone handset from scratch.

I have a feeling that most engineers have a similar orientation. It is in our genes. Please comment or email if you empathize or disagree.

There is an example of technology, which is neither particularly modern or even that complex, that I have never been able to understand: the humble sewing machine. These devices have been used by people with very limited technical know-how for countless years, so I am sure that their workings cannot be that hard to grasp. However, over the years, many people have tried to explain it to me, but I cannot get it. The problem is that a loop of thread is pushed by the needle through the material. Underneath the bed of the machine another thread is fed through this loop. That is the bit that I do not understand. It is almost as if there is a little man under there who passes a needle through the loop [there is not – I have looked]. Apart from asking people, I have studied diagrams etc. and still just do not get it.

The good news is that it is not just me. I have a very smart friend who likewise cannot figure this out. He has a theory: sometime back in the 19th century, some alien beings visited Earth and shared some of their advanced technology. Like all technology that is ahead of a society’s state of progress, it looked like magic. An example of the alien technology was the sewing machine. The little green men handed Mr. Singer the blueprints so that he could make the machines. He saw the opportunity to make money and was never troubled by his own lack of understanding.

I am on the lookout for other alien technology. Anyone spotted any examples?


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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at